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Caitlin Clark tells fans ‘this place will always be home to me’ as she bids farewell to Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Caitlin Clark got a final chance to say goodbye to Iowa fans, and of course there was a big crowd waiting.

Clark, who became major college basketball’s all-time leading scorer this season on the way to being the consensus national player of the year, was honored along with her teammates in a celebration at Iowa’s home arena commemorating the Hawkeyes’ second consecutive national runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament.

“I would say you’ve all inspired me as much as I inspired you,” Clark said to the approximately 8,000 fans at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “And you allowed me to live out my dream every single day, and for that, I’m very thankful. It’s been very special, and this place will always be home to me.”

Clark, expected to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Indiana Fever in the WNBA draft, finished her career with 3,951 points and 1,144 assists, an All-American in every season in a career that started playing in front of sparse crowds during her freshman year when attendance was limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clark received a standing ovation when Iowa athletics director Beth Goetz announced that Clark’s jersey number 22 will be retired, the third number to be retired in program history.

“I think they like you,” Goetz said to Clark after the announcement.

“It’s super incredible, something I’m very thankful for,” Clark said. “There’s been a lot of good 22s who have come before me and played for this program, whether it was Kathleen Doyle or Sam Logic. That number holds a lot of weight, far beyond me. I’m really grateful, and it will be a special day when it happens.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder called the Hawkeyes’ back-to-back runs to the national championship game “special.”

“This year’s was also special, because nobody thought we could do it,” she said. “Nobody thought we could repeat what we did last year, except these women up here.”

The attendance for the event wasn’t surprising given the Hawkeyes’ ability to draw big crowds this season.

The Hawkeyes sold out every home game, drawing 238,620 fans during the regular season, and that total doesn’t include the 55,646 fans who showed up for the “Crossover at Kinnick” outdoor exhibition game in October at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium that set the women’s basketball single-game attendance record.

Iowa also sold out its two NCAA tournament games at home — the weekend attendance of 28,764 was the most of any first weekend site in the women’s tournament.

“Please come back next year,” Bluder said. “Please fill Carver-Hawkeye Arena next year.”

Fans were lined up outside of the arena more than two hours before the event started, racing to find seats when the doors opened.

Angie Leyh of Atlantic, Iowa, brought her 10-year-old daughter Lana, who was celebrating her birthday, to the event.

The Leyhs had been to one game this season, attending Iowa’s NCAA Tournament opener against Holy Cross, but when Angie saw this event was going to be held on her daughter’s birthday, they decided to make the three-hour drive to come back one more time.

“We were going to drop everything to make sure she could be here,” Leyh said as her daughter held up a sign with her birthday wish list, asking for a chance to meet Clark, or at least get an autograph or a photo. “All of this is amazing.”

Clark circled the arena floor to sign autographs after the event, as she has after games throughout her career. She spoke during the event how she and her two brothers idolized athletes growing up.

“I wanted to be like them,” she said. “Those were the people who allowed me to dream and be in moments like this.”

Leyh knew what the Hawkeyes’ recent success meant to her daughter, whose sign also said about Clark, “I want to be just like you.”

“It’s a dream come true, and it’s made her dream bigger,” Leyh said.