Iowa’s Caitlin Clark vs Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith: A showdown for the Final Four

SEATTLE — The last time Caitlin Clark and Hailey Van Lith shared the floor together was in Bangkok, Thailand. As members of the USA Basketball U19 team, they competed in one of the wildest finishes either one can remember.

Trailing by three against Australia with 17 seconds to play and without possession, their teammate Rhyne Howard took an elbow to the face, drawing an unsportsmanlike foul. Their U.S. head coach, Jeff Walz, brought in Clark off the bench to take the free throws. Clark made 1 of 2, and Van Lith scored a bucket on the ensuing out-of-bounds play to tie the game. The Americans ended up winning in overtime to earn the gold medal, the young duo helping the U.S. team snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Four years later, they suit up on opposite teams, but the stakes are no less significant. Clark’s No. 2 seed Iowa takes on Van Lith’s No. 5 Louisville in Seattle on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line. Both former gold-medalists will be atop their opponent’s Sweet 16 scouting report, and the fiercely competitive guards will be at center stage of this Elite Eight showdown.

Iowa was expected by most to be in this position. Clark and her 26.9 points and 8.5 assists per game have helped power the Hawkeyes’ offense all season. Even if teams figure out a way to shut down Clark for stretches at a time, over the course of 40 minutes, she finds a way to get her buckets. She has been held below 20 points only three times all season.

Louisville coach Walz, who coached her in that dramatic U.S. win, says Clark has “a complete game.”

“She’s fantastic,” he says. “Her court vision’s outstanding, her range is once she crosses half court. Nobody’s going to undervalue what she does. She does a great job with her teammates. She sets them up, and they’re shot-ready and they take advantage of what she can do with the ball.”

Clark’s running mate Monika Czinano is often the barometer of the team’s success, however. When Czinano has been held to single digits this season, Iowa is 1-4. Stopping Clark is a near-impossible task considering how much she has the ball in her hands, so defenses often choose to load up on Czinano and prevent her from getting involved, thus denying the Hawkeyes a source of efficient offense and denying Clark her favorite passing outlet.

Limiting Czinano is easier said than done — Walz was in awe describing the center’s ability to turn over either shoulder and score off the catch without dribbling — but there is a more realistic blueprint for slowing her down than there is for Clark.

Clark and Czinano make magic together, particularly when their shooters get involved (the other three starters all shoot at least 38 percent from 3-point range), and have won multiple Big Ten titles in their three years as teammates. They’re still searching for a Final Four together, which would be the program’s first since 1993.

Hailey Van Lith is trying to guide Louisville to a second straight Final Four appearance. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

In contrast, Van Lith was here just last year, when her Cardinals advanced to the Final Four before bowing out to eventual national champion South Carolina. That squad had multiple seniors to provide guidance. Now, as a junior, Van Lith is the Louisville’s leader on the court and in the locker room.

Van Lith has been the Cardinals’ top scorer in 12 of the last 13 games, including all three NCAA Tournament contests. She’s also helped rally her teammates at the most important time of the year.

“I think Hailey is just a player that is just gonna fight no matter what,” Mykasa Robinson says. “The biggest thing is just the way that she carries herself. I think it’s a lot different this year than what it was before. She’s in a different position as far as a team stance goes. She’s a captain, she has to lead in different ways, and I think she’s done a great job with that.”

Unlike Clark, Van Lith doesn’t have one teammate who can score a flurry of points. Instead, the other seven players in the rotation average between 4.3 and 11 points per game, giving the Cardinals multiple options for someone to break through on a given night. Sometimes, it’s Chrislyn Carr getting hot from 3. Other times, it’s Morgan Jones finding driving lanes to the cup or Olivia Cochran bullying smaller centers inside.

But if the game is on the line, the ball will be in the hands of Clark and Van Lith — the one-time teammates who have experienced plenty of success in their basketball careers but still have so much left to prove.

Clark and Van Lith see their similarities. “I’m somebody that plays with that same level of passion and energy and excitement,” Clark said. “She’s feisty. I think that’s what I love about her. …. I think more than anything, she’s just an emotional leader for them. They’re never going to be out of it no matter what the score is.”

Van Lith repeatedly called Clark her “buddy” after beating Ole Miss in the Sweet 16 to ensure their matchup. “I have supported her through her college career, and she’s supported me through mine,” Van Lith said. “She’s gotten better every year.”

They have a shared thirst for winning, even if it will now come at the expense of a player who they once scaled the mountaintop with.

When the clock strikes zero on Sunday, Clark and Van Lith will return to being friends who support one another’s basketball careers. Until then, another victory hangs in the balance, and as Clark and Van Lith have learned, anything is possible in the pursuit of their next title.

(Top photo of Caitlin Clark:  C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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