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Michael O’BrienApril 09, 2024
Paige Bueckers, Dawn Staley and Caitlin Clark (Composite photo, Wikimedia Commons)

After defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes on Sunday night to win the national championship and cap off a perfect 38-0 season, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley was interviewed by reporter Holly Rowe, who asked, “Coach…we don’t see these tears from you very often. Why tonight?”

Staley doubled over in emotion, and when she rose back to her feet, the first words that came out of her mouth were: “We serve an unbelievable God.”

Staley’s words of faith were heard by millions; the game’s viewership exceeded 18 million people, the highest ratings ever for a women’s basketball game. It was also the most-watched basketball game at any level since 2019, according to ESPN.

N.C.A.A. women’s hoops experienced a perfect storm of sorts to attract a record number of viewers this season, and with the Gamecocks improving their record to a mind-boggling 109-3 over the last three seasons with two national championships to boot, it seems that sports fans are witnessing greatness.

Of course, the individual brilliance of both Caitlin Clark of the University of Iowa and Paige Bueckers of the University of Connecticut were also responsible for the massive increase in interest in women’s collegiate hoops this season.

“I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport,” Staley said later in her postgame interview. To shower this kind of praise on a player from an opposing team after just having won a championship illustrates the impact Clark has had on women’s sports.

But that’s not all Clark has done to lift up what she’s passionate about. She’s also making headlines for how important her Catholic upbringing is to her and her family.

Clark emerged as an elite guard while attending Dowling Catholic, a mid-sized private high school in West Des Moines, Iowa, where she started to develop a Steph Curry-esque talent for three-point shooting. Clark has said that Dowling was a special place because of its emphasis on developing their students as men and women of faith.

“We get to live our faith every day. Dowling starts every day with prayer and ends every day with prayer. This is a big reason why Dowling has such a special culture,” she said.

This chapter in her faith formation almost led her to commit to the University of Notre Dame, but she decided at the last minute to stay in her home state. While Clark may not have finished the Catholic school trifecta of grammar school, high school and college, her brother Colin continued on to Creighton University, coincidentally the same school that bounced Clark and Iowa from the N.C.A.A. tournament her sophomore year.

Colin and Caitlin aren’t the only Clark children with deep faith. In a feature story that ESPN published on Clark and the Hawkeyes, the author Wright Thompson notes: “Her brother Blake is always texting her reminders to say her rosary and go to the church.… My friend Annie Gavin, whose father is the famous wrestling coach Dan Gable, goes to that church and reports that more Sundays than not, she sees Caitlin in the pews. Blake wore his St. Benedict bracelet to the Final Four last year and did four decades of his rosary at the hotel and the last round in the arena just before tipoff.”

This detail about Clark’s everyday practices, published in a secular publication, highlights just how fascinated the public has become by all aspects of her life, including her faith.

Her hometown archdiocese takes pride in someone who represents what they stand for so well.

“Catholic education is about the formation of the whole person, not just the mind,” her pastor, the Rev. Joe Pins of St. Francis Parish in West Des Moines, said.

“Obviously athletics is a big part of that as well. I think we’re all very proud of the young lady [who’s] made a great name for herself and worked hard and is dedicated.”

Clark is the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming W.N.B.A. draft, and as she continues to establish herself as a household name in the world of sports, it will be fascinating to see how visible her faith is to the public.

On the road to the championship game, Iowa took down UConn in a thrilling 71-69 victory in the national semifinals. But the game was also the subject of controversy after it was essentially decided by an offensive foul call on UConn late in the contest.

Taking the mic in her address to the media after the game, Paige Bueckers, the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of the high school class of 2020 (three spots above Caitlin Clark), was asked about the questionable foul call.

Bueckers could have blamed the referees for the call which all but ended UConn’s season, but she didn’t. Instead, her response was an example of grace and accountability.

“Everybody can make a big deal of that one single play, but not one single play wins a basketball game or loses a basketball game, she said. “I feel there were a lot of mistakes that I made that could have prevented that play from even being that big or [costing] the game.”

Bueckers’s response shows how she handles defeat with humility; she’s also proven to be humble and faithful in victory.

After scoring a team-high 28 points in the Huskies’ Elite Eight win over Southern California, Bueckers, a Christian, used her postgame interview as an opportunity to give thanks to God.

“[I have] so much gratitude. I’m a living testimony, I give all glory to God. He works in mysterious ways. Last year, I was praying to be back at this stage,” Bueckers continued. “He sent me trials and tribulations, but it was to build my character. It was to test my faith to see if I was only a believer in the good times. I just kept on believing. I did all I could so God could do all I can’t.”

Amid the explosion of name, image and likeness endorsements in college sports, Bueckers has used her sponsorships to give back.

In her negotiations with Chegg, a study tool service, Bueckers had one “non-negotiable” stipulation as part of their deal: that the company open a community food market inside her alma mater, Hopkins West Junior High School.

Thanks to Bueckers’s efforts, the pantry will be able to feed as many as 50 families a week free of charge. Instead of choosing the avenue of requesting a car, sneakers or whatever else any famous athlete may naturally desire, Bueckers has fully embraced the “bigger picture” responsibilities of being a person with influence.

There is no doubt that this crop of figures, from Staley to Clark to Bueckers, is the most popular of any field of women’s college basketball stars ever. And as the women’s sports scene continues to grow, remember these three outstanding people as the ones who played a part in inspiring a generation of athletes and believers.

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