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Iowa star Caitlin Clark ready for true Des Moines homecoming in first game at Drake with fans


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IOWA CITY — The full homecoming experience didn’t quite register two years ago with no fans in the seats, so consider Caitlin Clark amped to enter a rocking Knapp Center she visited so often as a youth.

Although the West Des Moines native and Dowling Catholic graduate has become synonymous with Iowa women’s basketball, it was the Drake program she’ll face Sunday that gave her that first taste of live basketball. Pair that with COVID-19 axing last season’s matchup, and the storylines entering this year’s Drake-Iowa showdown offer more than just the traditionally familiar element when these schools meet.

“Those were the games I went to,” Clark said. “I lived two hours from (Iowa City), so I didn’t come here very often. I remember they had a little blimp that flew around in the crowd (at the Knapp Center). I love their women’s teams. I loved their men’s teams. I just wanted to be around basketball. I grew up there my whole life, so I’ll definitely have a lot of fans in the crowd rooting for me.

“Hopefully the place is more Hawkeye than Drake, but they give us a challenge every single time.”

Five of the last six Iowa-Drake showdowns at the Knapp Center have been single-digit games — with the Hawkeyes’ only loss in the series’ last 19 matchups coming there in 2016. Even with having all-American Megan Gustafson for the 2018 trip and freshman Clark for the 2020 trek, the Hawkeyes needed 90-plus points in both games to emerge victorious. Expect more of the same Sunday afternoon.

Previously:No. 6 Iowa women's basketball zooms by Evansville to set program scoring record

Although Drake has taken a small step back from its successful run through the Missouri Valley Conference that led to three straight NCAA Tournament berths (2017-19), the Bulldogs (1-0) are still capable of toppling the No. 6 Hawkeyes (2-0) on Sunday.     

The transitional feel going from Jennie Baranczyk to Allison Pohlman has faded. Transfer standouts Grace Berg and Megan Meyer have more than adjusted to their second collegiate homes and should have Drake at or near the top of the Valley come March.

Like Iowa, the Bulldogs have constructed a hefty non-conference schedule that offers plenty of tests before conference play commences. Sunday’s game is one of four ranked matchups currently on Drake’s schedule, with showdowns against No. 22 Nebraska (Nov. 19), No. 21 Creighton (Dec. 10) and No. 9 Iowa State (Dec. 22) to come.    

“What we’re going to get out of that is really just a gauge,” Pohlman said last month. “Where does this team stand? How competitive are we? What are we willing to do to be able to put the ball in the hole or get that extra stuff that we need when we need to get it?” 

More:5 storylines to watch ahead of the Iowa women's basketball season

Iowa is hoping to benefit from Sunday’s tougher test as well. The Hawkeyes don’t have many unknowns regarding its top unit that’s together for now a third straight season. But rotational minutes beyond that are still being sorted out.

Expect Sunday to offer a bigger challenge than this week’s blowouts over Southern and Evansville.

“We didn’t play there with fans last time,” Clark said. “It was an offensive battle the last time we went there, so we’re hoping our defense can be a little better. But they’re a great offensive team, and anytime you play an in-state rival, you’re going to get their best shot. And we’re going to give them our best shot. We know it’s going to be a lot different than these first two games we’ve played.  

“From here on out, every team we play is NCAA (Tournament) caliber, and that’s a credit to our coaches for scheduling these teams. If we want to be where we want to be in March, we’ve got to beat these types of teams every single game. Really, I think every (non-conference) team left is NCAA (Tournament) or better. I think a lot of them can reach the Sweet 16.”    

Clark has wanted to play in Sunday’s atmosphere for some time. She’ll get her shot in her own backyard.

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.