COLLEGE PARK — There is no more in-demand performer in college sports than Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who is selling out arenas across the Big Ten and authoring “SportsCenter”-worthy highlights in every game she plays.
Saturday, the No. 2 scorer in NCAA history comes to Maryland. Xfinity Center sold out in December, the first Terps sellout since 2016. In Clark’s last five games, she’s scored 30, 32, 45, 38 and 35 points — her jaw-dropping shooting range often compared to Steph Curry’s.
The only thing more difficult than stopping Clark is getting a ticket to her games. A cursory glance through the secondary ticket market for Saturday’s Terps-Hawkeyes clash shows the cheapest tickets coming in at over $100, which has been the case for many of Iowa’s road games this year.
Clark is the show the sports world is keeping in the spotlight. But, for the Terps, it’s not the best time.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese looked worn down Wednesday after an 87-73 loss to No. 10-ranked Indiana before a peppy but much smaller crowd (7,137) than Maryland will see for Saturday’s tilt against No. 3 Iowa (20-2, 9-1).
The Terps (12-9, 4-6) have lost three straight, and Shyanne Sellers — the steady junior guard leading the team in scoring — was injured in an unseemly defeat to Penn State. With other injured players including Emma Chardon and Riley Nelson, Maryland’s depth has been frayed to the bone.
“We’ve talked about it as a staff,” Frese said. “Like you kind of sometimes feel like you’re coaching with one hand tied behind your back.”
Against the Hoosiers, the Terps attempted to install a triangle-and-two defense that would throw off their visitors’ inside-out game plan. Indiana coach Teri Moren admitted she wasn’t expecting the schematic tweak — but it backfired on the Terps as IU zipped to a 14-2 lead, forcing them to play from behind for the rest of the evening.
Frese felt like her team had to try something to shake things up.
“That’s something we’ve done in the past, but we haven’t repped it a ton all year,” she said with a self-deprecating tone. “So we had one practice to get it in, and it was an epic fail.”
Tied for eighth in the Big Ten standings, the Terps haven’t quite hit rock bottom — it only feels that way because of how dominant the program has been under Frese for two decades.
The Terps have six conference titles, more than all but four Big Ten schools, despite being in the conference only 10 seasons. They have a 160-30 record against Big Ten schools, including a 75-8 mark at Xfinity Center — indeed, Moren opened her postgame comments by congratulating her program (which won the Big Ten last season) for getting its first-ever win on the road at Maryland.
As excellent as the program has been relative to its conference peers, Maryland isn’t quite the juggernaut that UConn, South Carolina and Stanford have been. Reloading its Elite Eight squad after losing two first-round WNBA draft picks (Diamond Miller and Abby Meyers) hasn’t been simple. Adding to the sting of this year’s struggles is that Angel Reese, a onetime rising star in the program, has sights on a second national title with LSU.
By contrast, Iowa’s rise represents a shifting paradigm in the NCAA, from the team brand being the strength to individual stars driving the sport. The name-image-likeness era has arguably benefited women the most, giving them a lucrative platform to drive their sports into national consciousness.
Last year’s Final Four was the most-viewed basketball weekend in the history of the women’s game, and with Reese and Clark as headliners, the championship drew 9.9 million viewers. Saturday’s game will be aired on Fox – several of Clark’s games have aired on national TV, even against NFL games.
Clark’s stardom may never have reached the feverish pitch in the past that it has now. She’s also in commercials and other wide-ranging platforms, when she’s not lighting it up on the court. Iowa’s star has risen with her, Clark lifting it with the strength of her appeal.
The pendulum has swung against Maryland. But that does not mean the Terps are done fighting.
They showed as much Wednesday, whittling a 23-point Hoosiers lead to seven in the fourth quarter. After scrapping the triangle, the Terps used a mix of zone and pressure to hound Indiana into 13 turnovers. It got away from them in the end but not without a tussle.
“We knew that Maryland was not going to go away,” Moren said. “It’s just not how they’re coached. They have too much tradition and pride.”
Maryland can and will hunt for the next rising star whose tide will raise all boats, but until then it will have to play underdog, and it will have to do it the old-fashioned way: as a team. The Terps trounced Clark and the Hawkeyes last year at home 96-68, and some of the biggest performers in that game are still in the program — Brinae Alexander and Lavender Briggs among them. Both scored season highs at the time.
You cannot pick what time the spotlight hits, but you can choose the approach. The Terps go into Saturday’s game ready to rumble, for better or worse.
“We’re in it,” Frese said. “We’re just gonna keep putting our heads down and fighting.”