Caitlin Clark Now Playing Veteran Role in Seeking to Make USA U19 World Cup Team
Clark was one of the youngest players back in 2019 when she helped the USA to a gold medal.
Steve Drumwright, Red Line Editorial
Caitlin Clark knows all about bringing along the younger players.
She was one of the youngest players asked to try out for USA Basketball’s 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup Team. Clark made the team and played a surprisingly key role in helping the USA win the gold medal.
Two years later, Clark is a two-time gold medalist and one of 25 participants attempting to make the 2021 version of the same team this weekend at Metro State University in Denver.
“It was a lot of learning more than anything,” said Clark, who just finished a fantastic freshman season at Iowa. “I was going into my senior year of high school, and I was getting to play with some girls that were already in college, getting coached by college coaches, so I kind of like to say it got me a step ahead for the college game. And more than anything, it was just a super-fun experience, just learning from older girls like Rhyne Howard, Naz Hillmon. Just hearing their knowledge, how their first year of college was just kind of got me a step ahead. … Being surrounded by those great players and then to win the gold with all of them was truly a special experience for sure.”
The three-day trials will help determine the 12-player roster for the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup, which will be held Aug. 7-15 at Debrecen, Hungary. The U.S. has won seven of the past eight U19 gold medals.
Clark, who also won gold at the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championship, wasn’t expected to make much of an impact when the U.S. won gold in 2019 in Bangkok. She played just 14.7 minutes per game and came off the bench in all seven games. But in what seemed like a prescient move, Louisville’s Jeff Walz, the U.S. head coach, told her to be ready in case something happened at the end of the gold-medal game.
Trailing 66-63, an Australian player’s elbow struck Howard in the nose, forcing Howard out of the game temporarily. With only 17 seconds left, Walz called upon Clark to shoot two free throws. Clark hit the first and missed the second, then Hailey Van Lith made a jumper with 12 seconds left to tie the game, which the U.S. won in overtime 74-70.
“Honestly, it was just crazy,” Clark said. “I mean Australia really should have just dribbled out the clock, but Rhyne took one for the team, probably a broken nose for us. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this can't be happening.’ (Walz) told me this before the game. But I was just glad to make one of them. I would have liked to have made two, and he still holds that against me a little and he jokes about it when I see him. But it's probably one of the best finishes to a game that I've ever been a part of by far for sure.”
Like players with her type of talent and opportunity often do, Clark continued to build on that success. Coming out of Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, Clark was the No. 4 recruit in the nation when she began her freshman season at Iowa. All she did her first season in college was lead the nation in scoring (27.4 points), and was fourth in assists (6.9). It earned her a share of the national Freshman of the Year honor with Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, who also was on the 2019 U19 squad, from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
“I wouldn't have said at the beginning of the year I was gonna do what I did,” Clark said. “I obviously set my goals pretty high, but to do what I did, I mean it was pretty remarkable, and I wouldn't have told anybody I was going to do that before the season. I think just the style of play we play at Iowa and how the team flowed together, it just really was perfect for me and helps my offensive skill set.”
One of the areas she is looking to improve upon is leadership. Her breakout season on a young Hawkeyes team put her in prime position and she is looking to hone those skills during this week’s USA Basketball trials under coach Cori Close, the UCLA coach who was an assistant to Walz on the 2019 team. Of the 25 players at the trials, 10 are just finishing up their junior or senior years in high school.
“This is my first time doing something with USA Basketball where I've been one of the oldest, so it'll definitely be different,” Clark said. “But I think leadership is always something you need on these USA Basketball teams, so I'm kind of bringing that, especially because I've won gold twice and kind of knowing that on this exact same team, I've had coach Close as a coach before. So just kind of trying to be a leader, having been there before and coming in with that good mentality and I think that'll help more than anything.”
While one would think Clark has a roster spot locked up, she knows that nothing is certain with so many great players competing.
“Nobody's ever guaranteed a spot,” Clark said. “Just coming in, just playing my game more than anything, you're not going to make every shot, and doing the little things. Obviously, it's more than just scoring the ball, it’s also playing good defense — USA Basketball is all about team, so being team-oriented, being vocal, being a leader, I think those are the biggest things. They look for other people that do all the little things, and I think that's what makes their teams so great.”