Caitlin Clark has been in the National Player of the Year conversation every year since she was a freshman. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark still has a sour taste in her mouth when she thinks about it.

With 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Iowa’s second-round game in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, Creighton (and former Iowa) guard Lauren Jensen hit a 3-pointer to put the Bluejays in front, 63-62. The game had been a physical slog from the start, and the Hawkeyes were spent. Still, there was plenty of time on the clock. All Iowa needed was a single bucket.

The ball was inbounded and passed over to Clark. She drove to the left side of the lane and put the ball up against the glass. But like so many of Iowa’s shots that night, it didn’t fall.

The Bluejays eventually walked away with a 64-62 win on the way to their first Elite Eight appearance in school history. Clark and the Hawkeyes just walked away.

“Obviously, being the Big Ten champion, being the regular season champion, which had never been done before in the history of our program, that’s certainly to be celebrated,” Clark says. “But when you end your season in that manner, I think it kind of gives you that fire.

“And maybe we didn’t have that last year, and that’s why it ended that way.”

Looking back, Clark points to more than a few things the Hawkeyes could have done better throughout the game, the most glaring being Creighton’s 52-37 rebounding advantage.

“When you get into the tournament, there’s going to be things that don’t go your way,” she says. “Shots aren’t going to fall, and you need to find another way to win. It’s focusing on everything else that you can do to get better and not let that happen again.”

Each summer, Clark usually commits to playing internationally with Team USA. This year, after wrapping up her sophomore spring semester, there wasn’t anything available in her age bracket. Plus, she wanted to be in Iowa City, spending the bulk of her time in the gym and on the court with her teammates.

Clark learned a lot about herself and her game last season. After fooling defenses in her first year with her pinpoint passing and long-range shooting touch, earning a couple of Co-Freshman of the Year honors with UConn guard Paige Bueckers, teams took a more physical approach to defending her in 2021-22. Going into the offseason, Clark felt she needed to add strength and muscle to be able to withstand the extra pressure and hold her own for the length of the season.

“I would say the biggest difference for me was the consistency in the weight room. Getting bigger, stronger, faster,” Clark says. “That’s something you have to be consistent with if you want it to get better.”

She wanted to be stronger in the lane as well and worked on a few post moves to be able to leverage her height against smaller guards.

“You’re not going to see me do it if I have a tall, athletic guard on me. There’s other things I can do to get open in that manner,” Clark laughs. “But if I have a [shorter] guard on me, why not?”

It’s hard to fathom Clark becoming more skilled than she already is as a player. Ever since her freshman season, she has been a part of the Player of the Year conversation. Bueckers won the award in 2021, and Aliyah Boston got the nod last season while leading South Carolina to a national championship.

Boston, a 6-foot-5 forward, and Clark are two distinct players who excel in different areas, making it hard to compare them head-to-head. But Clark has always been close in the race, and this year there’s little doubt she’ll be in the mix once again. She has learned that the comparisons come with the territory.

“I think it was Coach [Dawn] Staley that said this — I think that discussion is so great for women’s basketball. You want people to talk about who should be Player of the Year. That makes people excited about our game, makes people want to watch our game,” Clarks says.

“And that’s the most important thing. At the end of the day, you don’t play for those awards. That’s not why you play.”

With Bueckers out for the season with a torn ACL, Clark’s path to the top honor is clearer than ever. But that’s not what’s motivating her this season. After turning down multiple offers as the No. 4 recruit in 2020 to attend Iowa, winning an NCAA title for her hometown university is what matters most.

“When I committed here, that’s what I said and I believed it. Maybe at the time, not every girl in the locker room believed it,” she says. “But right now, every single person in our locker room and in our program believes that’s where we can be.”

“I think Caitlin, the way she handles herself allows that,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder adds. “Everybody sees that she’s the hardest worker. Everybody sees all the extra time that she puts in.

“She’s a great teammate as far as crediting her teammates with success and building them up all the time. I think part of that is due to Caitlin, and I think part of it is the culture of our program and that we really stress that everyone is important on our team. Everyone matters.”

Over the past six months, Bluder hasn’t shied away from talking about Creighton, either. In fact, she brings it up almost daily — not so much the loss to Creighton, but the lessons that came out of it.

“Yeah, it was really crushing at the end, and it just is a great reminder to everybody that every possession counts. One basket counts, one rebound counts, one turnover counts. That’s all it really came down to,” Bluder says. “If you focus just on a loss, that’s a little depressing, right? And who wants to come to practice then? We really try to use it more as a fuel for fire than anything else.”

Bluder knows her team fell short of expectations despite putting together a historic season, and the pressure to exceed last year’s results only seems to have increased. Iowa is ranked fourth overall in the AP preseason poll, in a top five that also consists of No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Texas and No. 5 Tennessee.

The spotlight is brighter, but Bluder is confident.

She points to Clark, who led the nation with 27 points and eight assists per game last season and was unanimously voted the 2022-23 preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. And she talks about the return of Monika Czinano, who ranked first nationally with a 67.9 field-goal percentage, providing consistency and power in the paint.

Clark celebrates Iowa's Big Ten tournament title last season with coach Lisa Bluder and teammate Monika Czinano. (Robert Goddin/USA TODAY Sports)

All of Iowa’s five starters are returning, but it’s the new wrinkles to the Hawkeyes’ lineup this year that could make the difference, particularly Central Michigan transfer Molly Davis. The guard led her team in scoring last year and left as the program’s all-time leader in scoring average, with 17.7 points per game.

When Bluder first approached Davis about joining the Hawkeyes, she was upfront about the situation: Davis would serve as the backup point guard to Clark and compete for off-guard minutes. But as the offseason unfolded, Davis showed the Iowa coaching staff just how well she plays off the ball.

“She’s crafty, she’s deceiving, she’s a smart basketball player,” Bluder says. “So I’m very, very excited. I think that’s going to be an X-factor that people haven’t figured out with our team yet.”

Clark agrees.

“I think it’s going to help us in a lot of ways — number one, handling the ball,” she says. “We’ve never really had a true backup point guard. When you’re in high-pressure games, I didn’t really get a chance to get a breather quick. So it’s a huge addition for us. But at the same time, we can play together, which I think is going to be a really interesting dynamic.”

For the past two seasons, Clark has had the ball in her hands the majority of the time, and for good reason. She’s the best player on the team and a dynamic shooter. But at times, the Hawkeyes became one-dimensional as teams focused primarily on Clark. Having another guard who can handle and distribute the ball will make them even harder to defend.

“Her basketball IQ is through the roof. So I think that’s going to help me off the ball,” Clark says of Davis. “She knows when to get me the ball, where. And obviously I only have a short window to catch the ball coming off screens, off cuts, because I am guarded so closely.”

“Having two point guards on the court allows for anyone to push in transition and get the ball up the floor quickly,” Davis adds. “It also takes some of the pressure off of Caitlin having to bring the ball up every time.”

Clark is equally as thrilled to have a familiar frontcourt presence in Czinano back for another season.

“I was probably the happiest person in the world when I knew that Monika was coming back,” she says. “Me and Monika probably have one of the best connections in the country. We just really understand each other’s game well, play off of each other super well. I don’t always think that Monika gets the recognition she deserves.”

When Clark and Czinano first started playing together in 2020, Clark says she hit Czinano in the head more than a few times when passing the ball inside. Now, they are so in sync that Czinano knows when the ball is coming, whether Clark is looking at her or not, and Czinano knew she wasn’t ready to give up on that on-court connection just yet.

“I think it took me three days to decide that I wanted to come back,” Czinano says. “I knew how special this team was going to be and would have felt weird not being a part of it knowing I had an opportunity to.”

Clark led the nation in points and assists per game as a sophomore last season. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

Bluder knows it’s going to take a full-team effort for the Hawkeyes to achieve their goals this season. They have the talent to reach the first Final Four in program history and even bring home an NCAA championship. And she has said as much to her players.

“Billie Jean King told me that one time: ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ That’s what we are trying to use. She actually wrote that on a piece of paper and signed it for me, and we have it framed in our locker room. It’s something I want my players to see,” Bluder says.

“This is what you work for is to be ranked high in the country. Does it bring pressure? Yes. But man, you worked hard for it, so you’d better enjoy it, too.”

Clark is taking that pressure in stride, but she doesn’t want to relive another early exit in the NCAA Tournament. The sour taste it left behind still lingers.

As Clark looks ahead to this season, beginning with the Nov. 7 opener at home, she’s preparing for a different result. One that tastes much, much sweeter.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.