LINCOLN, Neb. — The first fan outside Pinnacle Bank Arena was spotted on security film at 4 a.m., a full eight hours before the scheduled tip-off.
As time ticked off the countdown clock, thousands joined lines that stretched around the next block on the south side and filled a pedestrian bridge on the north side. Fans chatted about when they bought the coveted tickets, where they traveled from, and what they might see inside the arena’s walls.
Would Caitlin Clark become Division I’s all-time scorer Sunday? If a blowout breaks out in No. 2 Iowa’s favor, would they sit her late to break it at home?
Emily Vitosh, an 18-year-old who traveled from Falls City, Iowa, with her mom, made a countdown poster with stapled numbers to tear off for every Clark point like a basketball scoreboard in a middle school gymnasium.
She pulled off enough for it to move from 39 to eight after the star guard’s 31-point, 10-assist performance. Across the arena, a young girl with a marker did the same on a poster-size chart.
The only numbers that mattered to Clark, who became the first player with 3,000 points and 1,000 assists, were the ones on the video board hanging between them. And they showed an outcome few were discussing, or might have even considered, in the lines of black-and-yellow clad fans cheering for video cameras: That Iowa would follow the teams before them and suffer another upset of a No. 2 squad. When the buzzer blew, Cornhuskers fans celebrated under a scoreboard that read 82-79 in their favor.
No, Nebraska players and head coach Amy Williams said, they didn’t talk about keeping Clark from passing the record on their court. But they did recognize the spotlight she brought could be to their benefit.
A signature win is one thing; a nation watching it happen is quite another.
“We were focused on one thing and one thing only,” said Williams, in her eighth season at the helm. “And that was winning the ball game. And finding ways to become the best version of ourselves. We knew this was going to be a big opportunity on a big stage with a lot of eyes watching for us to do something special and for people to start talking about Nebraska women’s basketball. And that’s the only thing we talked about.”
The Cornhuskers (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten) have played a roller coaster of a Big Ten schedule, but remained in the top half of the standings. They lost by 19 on the road against Iowa (22-3, 11-2) last month. Clark scored 38 in that one and historically had success against them, leading to week-long speculation this indeed would be the game the record fell. She had never lost to Nebraska, whose last win against Iowa was in 2019.
The way the Cornhuskers played that game led them to believe. They kept in it just enough early, answering Clark’s deep 3s that brought Iowa fans to roars with ones of their own as Nebraska fans answered the call.
“That was the aim of the game,” senior guard Jaz Shelley, who led Nebraska with 23 points and five assists, said. “We knew Iowa was going to hit some big shots, but we had to respond and I think every time we did. That’s a big reason that we won.”
After Clark heated up in the third quarter to pull within eight points of breaking the record, Nebraska changed up their defense to face guard her with a box-and-1. She didn’t score again in the game and the Cornhuskers erased a 14-point deficit to take their first lead with 30.2 on the clock.
Clark said Iowa had prepared for it throughout the season, but maybe not too much in the past few days, and “should have been ready for it.”
“[It’s] a good learning opportunity for us,” Clark said. “Like we said in the locker room, our goals are still intact. You just come in and get better every single day.
“Maybe it’s a good reset for our team to be able to look in the mirror and find ways to get better, and that’s one through 14 on the bench.”
Iowa will still be a top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll with claims to a top hosting seed in the NCAA tournament. Nebraska added a resume-builder to their tournament hopes and could garner extra attention doing it on a highly watched broadcast.
The win matched the highest upset in program history, matching its defeat of No. 2 Baylor in 2005. That Bears squad won the national championship, a feat Iowa is hoping to reach after losing in the title game last year. Hawkeyes fans traveled well in their magical tournament run, and it’s only grown stronger amid Clark’s chase for the record.
The game was announced as a sell-out six weeks ago and the announced attendance was 15,402, with plenty of people standing in the openings at the 100 level. Hundreds joined the line hours ahead of the game to grab the best general admission seats that filled about two-thirds of the arena. By 9 a.m., the line outside had grown from one early adopter to the end of the block. An hour later, it was wrapped around it.
More fans packed the pedestrian bridge on the north side and cars queued on the highway getting to the arena with parkings spots taken hours ago. The majority of fans lining up were decked in Iowa gear and arena officials opened the doors 20 minutes early because of the line.
The Hoffman family joined the line at 8:30 and swapped out parents about an hour in to keep their place near the front. They purchased the tickets when they went on sale in October because Lincoln is closer to their home in Sioux City, Iowa. It was the same game they attended last year, with less fanfare. They had no idea Clark could be close to breaking the all-time scoring record. And to be fair, at the time no one thought the early February matchup could net it.
For all the outside fanfare, Clark has remained even-keeled and said again on Sunday the chase hasn’t “been a distraction at all.”
“It is what it is. It comes with the territory,” she said. “When it happens, it happens. [It’s] really not going to affect my life that much. I’m just going to keep going about my business like I have the last four years and pour into my teammates every single day and hopefully we as a team reach our goals.”
Given this is the reality around Iowa and Clark of late, it’s easy to lose sight of the rarity. Everyone involved with the arena who was asked about it said they’d never seen anything like it. A security guard filmed fans streaming into the general admission lower bowl seating at the ends, marveling at a site he had never come close to seeing. He smiled, pointing out where fans were allowed to go.
Dozens of young girls waved their signs with countdown tallies and notes on how far they traveled as they kept their eyes transfixed on Clark during warmups. It was a heavy Iowa presence felt throughout, from the streets to the bowels of the arena, though the sidelines of Nebraska fans in the lower bowl held their own.
“Coming out and seeing more yellow at first, kind of scary when you’re at home,” junior center Alexis Markowski said. “But Husker fans really showed out. We just kind of took it as a challenge. We knew that we were underdogs in this situation and we gave it our all and came out on top.”
The traveling road show will return home to Iowa City where Clark is almost assured to break the mark. She hasn't scored single digits only once in her collegiate career, against Northwestern as a freshman. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is sold out via season tickets, and prices on secondary markets are going for hundreds.
Whether it’s in the arena or not, the lines and signs will be back out in full force. Those not making the trip will turn it on at home because there are only eight more pages waiting to be ripped off the countdown.