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Doyel: IU is really good. Caitlin Clark is historically good. And Devine is just a good girl.


INDIANAPOLIS – IU senior Ali Patberg is crying, and I want to tell her to stop. She’s walking to the Hoosiers’ bench with 3.7 seconds left in the 2022 Big Ten tournament title game, and her knees are buckling. Teammates are propping her up until she collapses onto the bench, where she covers her head in a towel as the No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes finish off the No. 12 IU women 74-67 Sunday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

IU senior Grace Berger is draping an arm around Patberg on the bench. Berger’s not crying, but we are who we are, you know? Berger is stoic, fascinatingly so, all muscle and bone and grace, and she’s watching the final seconds evaporate with zero emotion.

Patberg is fiery and emotional, on the court and off it, so of course she’s hiding nothing right now. Knowing Patberg just a little bit, I’m guessing she feels she let the team down. This wasn’t her finest shooting performance — 3-for-12 from the floor — but Patberg had six points, four rebounds and five assists. If the 2015 IndyStar Miss Basketball winner needs a nickname, "Elmer’s" wouldn’t be so bad. She’s the glue of this team, doing a little bit of everything, as she has since transferring here from Notre Dame in 2017.

Right now she’s doing a whole lot of crying, her head and shoulders shaking underneath the towel as Berger comforts her. This game has ended wrong, but so much has gone right. This was IU’s first Big Ten title appearance in 20 years, another slice of history in a season, and an era under coach Teri Moren, full of them. The 2022 Big Ten title wasn’t in the cards, but maybe the 2022 Final Four will be. The Hoosiers have the pieces.

They have point guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary, the best defensive player Sunday and an underrated offensive player. Like, she transferred to IU after three seasons at George Mason, where she left as the program’s all-time scoring leader with 1,766 points. Add her two seasons at IU, and she has scored more than 2,200 career points.

And she’s maybe IU’s fourth-best player. There’s Berger and Patberg and All-American candidate Mackenzie Holmes, still rounding into form after a midseason knee injury. And there’s Cardano-Hillary, who scored 19 points and had seven rebounds, three assists, four steals and even two blocks, playing so well at both ends that I could be wrong — maybe she’s the Hoosiers’ best player. It’s hard to say.

More: Doyel last month: IU women playing for history, and so much more

It’s that way sometimes, with the really good teams. And this is a really good team.

That is not the story I came here to write, however.

Caitlin Clark historically good, but...

Caitlin Clark is crying, and I want to tell her to stop.

No, not emotionally crying. Not like Patberg was doing, not like I do when I see something heartbreaking — like I saw after the game Sunday, a teaser for later. No, Clark cries in the basketball sense, the LeBron James and Stephen Curry and Domantas Sabonis sense: She wants a foul called every time she drives to the basket, and she’ll run up to an official and wave her hands angrily, as she did in the second quarter, drawing Iowa coach Lisa Bluder from the bench before officials could call a technical foul on her star.

And Clark is the Hawkeyes’ star. She wasn’t their best player, technically, Sunday — that would be 6-3 senior center Monika Czinano, who had 30 points and 10 rebounds — but Clark’s their best player in the big picture. She’s probably the best player in the country, and someday might be the best player in the world. If that happens it’ll come shortly after she joins the WNBA, most likely as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA draft.

Clark, a 6-0 sophomore guard, is that good. She entered Sunday leading the country in scoring (27.7 ppg) and assists (8.1). She also averages eight rebounds, and leads the country with five triple-doubles. She also led the country in scoring as a freshman (26.6 ppg), and was second in assists (7.1). She’s the Trae Young or Stephen Curry of the women’s game; she’s that good.

Clark’s that good off the floor, too. After this game Sunday she ran into the crowd to thank Iowa fans who made the 375-mile trip from Iowa City, chatting and signing autographs. She’s beloved in Iowa City, and should be. One, she’s the best basketball player that school is ever going to have, male or female, and I don’t care who’s been there before or who comes later. Caitlin Clark is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and she recognizes her role in the community, her responsibility to grow the game and return a fan base’s affection.

Iowa fans are always waving homemade posters at games, and earlier this week Clark spotted a ridiculously cute poster on Twitter. It was held by a girl, maybe 10 years old, with thick black glasses and a huge smile, and in every color of the rainbow her sign read: “You are our hero Caitlin Clark."

Clark saw it, retweeted the picture and wrote: “Twitter help me find this girl I want to send her something!!!!!”

Her tweet made the rounds, and within 25 minutes the girl’s father, a Des Moines middle-school math teacher named Derek Buyck, responded. Clark tweeted him back: “Check DM!”

So there I am Sunday, finding Derek Buyck on Twitter myself, asking him how the story ended. As he told me: Clark got his address and will send Iowa shirts to his daughters, Norah (in the picture) and Sage.

That’s Clark, off the court. On the court? Well, she had a rough game Sunday: 6-for-17 from the floor overall, 1-for-7 on 3-pointers. She had 18 points, two assists and five turnovers, possibly the worst game of her career.

Perhaps that explains why Clark spent the game complaining to officials, though an even-tempered Iowa fan sitting nearby told me — when I asked — that, yes, Clark complains like this every game.

No, these are not paragraphs I intended to write today. But Caitlin Clark was everything I'd heard she'd be. And slightly less.

Now the dog is crying!

Devine is crying, and I am telling her to stop.

Devine is a dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer, and she’s spectacular. She’s sitting two rows behind me, in a section of Iowa fans. Her owner is Hawkeyes season ticket-holder Michael Bush, who tells me Devine was named for Aubrey Devine, the quarterback of Iowa’s 1921 national championship football team. See what we can learn from dogs?

Devine, a service dog, is sitting in the chair next to Bush. She's a white-and-brown beauty with black dots and a hot-pink harness, where someone has scribbled something. Wait a minute, I’m asking Michael, is that an autograph?

“Caitlin Clark signed it,” he tells me, big smile.

That’s in the first half. After the game, after Iowa wins and Gainbridge Fieldhouse explodes in a cacophony of noisemakers and confetti, Devine is hiding behind Bush, shivering. I mean, she’s terrified.

“It’s the noise,” Bush is telling me, and I’m telling you, my heart is breaking.

Was I emotional at that moment? Well, close. I’m begging Devine to stop crying, and while it’s not working — I’m probably bugging her; I do that a lot to dogs — she’ll be OK soon. The moment will pass, and I’m thinking the same will happen for Ali Patberg and the rest of the IU women’s team. They have something special, this team, with Patberg so versatile and Holmes so powerful and Berger so incredibly strong and skilled.

And then there’s Cardano-Hillary, who’s six inches shorter than Clark but has completely shut down the best guard in college basketball. Cardano-Hillary is picking up Clark near midcourt, where her shooting range begins, and clinging to her so tightly that Clark is lashing out, drawing one, two, three, then four offensive fouls.

Cardano-Hillary is so effective at this, I’m looking up her background and sure enough, there it is: She made the Atlantic-10 All-Defensive team at George Mason. She was also the A-10 Player of the Year in 2019. Looking at more recent events, it says here Cardano-Hillary was one of five players selected for the 2022 Big Ten All-Defensive team, as voted by coaches. Of course she was.

Cardano-Hillary also scored those 19 points, one less than Berger, who added seven rebounds and four assists. Holmes had 11 points and seven rebounds, and took just four shots from the floor. Add Patberg and 6-3 Aleksa Gulbe (11 points, six rebounds), and that’s one heck of a starting five. Good enough to lead IU to the next step? Perhaps, but the bar is high: IU reached the 2021 Elite Eight.

IU in the 2022 Women's Final Four? That would be so good, it would be ... Devine.

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