Even without Caitlin Clark’s career day, Iowa’s defense could be a title contender

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder didn’t spend the week leading up to the NCAA tournament talking to her team last year. That heartbreak was motivation for the summer, avenging a move to their first Final Four since 1993 and the Hawkeyes going 40 minutes.

For those watching Sunday afternoon on ABC, every camera shot of Caitlin Clark’s parents, stressed and wringing their hands amid a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd, was a reminder of her. Every time Georgia came back late after a few possessions, furrowed brows inside and outside the arena said it all: Was it about to happen again? Second-ranked Iowa, one of the nation’s best offenses led by outstanding deep threats, was about to upset No. 10 for the second year in a row?

It looked certain when the Bulldogs pulled ahead late in the third, cut one possession midway through the fourth and finally cut it to a bucket with 2:19 left. The more time Iowa allowed them, the more confident Diamond Battles and the forgotten SEC team became. His eyes widened. His brows furrowed further.

It wasn’t Iowa’s offense that brought relief to another tough second-round tournament draw. It was an unexpected defensive stand that sent the Hawkeyes to the Sweet 16 with a 74-66 victory. The way they performed against a top defense, without Clark’s career day and no help off the bench, speaks for itself.

“Georgia is a great basketball team,” Bluder said. “And obviously we had to play very, very well to get this win today.”

Clark grabbed the turnover and hit a jumper to cut the lead to 4 at the 47-second mark, the team’s four straight missed shots. Kate Martin tipped the pass to the top of the arc on the next possession to land safely in the hands of Monika Czinano, with enough free throws in between to go ahead.

Clark, the reigning National Player of the Year, had 18 points at the end before those four free throws, which would have marked his second-lowest total of the season. He scored 15 in 20 minutes in a 111-57 rout of Rutgers last month. His final 22 points are still nearly 5 below his average and his three rebounds were a season low.

What he did not have in the first two categories he made up in the second. Trailing totals of 12 assists in four other games and scored or assisted on 33 of the team’s final 35 points in a game that featured nine lead changes, four ties and never went over 10 points.

Iowa's caitlin clark drives the ball up court during the second half against georgia in the second round of the women's ncaa tournament at carver-hawkeye arena in iowa city, iowa, march 19, 2023. (rebecca gratz/ncaa photos via getty images)

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark drives the ball up court during the second half against Georgia in the second round of the women’s NCAA tournament at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, March 19, 2023. (Rebecca Gratz/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“I didn’t want to let this team lose again in this round,” Clark said. “I knew I had to step up for this team and play games. I thought I was able to distinguish their area with my eyes and put the ball inside.’

Last season’s second-round loss to Creighton weighed heavily on the players then, and lingered on people’s minds now. It was a bad game for Iowa to go against a 3-point happy team, just as it was a bad game to beat the nation’s 13th best defense. Going forward could be as tough as a potential foe in next weekend’s Sweet 16 in Seattle with Duke (ranked third in defensive rating).

“We played great defense, stifling defense,” Georgia coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “And the down range is not indicative of the game.”

Georgia turned the ball over three times in the final minutes, the first two on their own. The pass to Clark became Iowa’s cushion. That determined the end of the game, but it wasn’t why Iowa won and it didn’t make it look good going forward.

The difference between Iowa’s 2022 second-round loss and this win is stark. Clark had 15 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists last year and Czinano controlled the paint for 27 points in a 2-point loss. No other starter had more than 6 as they relied on “the law firm” all season.

A year later, that company has expanded its partners and found ways to win even in one of the lowest-scoring games of the year.

Abrahamson-Henderson gave one entertaining scouting report Saturday and met Gabbie Marshall — “they have a nice little one.” [pretty] eyes” – could be a sniper. Georgia’s defense still couldn’t stop him and Marshall went 5 of 8 from 3-point range for 15 points with 2 steals.

It’s been a hot month for the 5-foot-9 senior guard. That’s 19-of-33 in March, compared to 32% (32-of-103 heading into the postseason). That’s huge for the Hawkeyes to have another threat that stretches defenses. McKenna Warnock had 14 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists in her first doubleheader since her 21-point game against Maryland on March 4.

The starters were almost in the game, led by Clark who played all 40 minutes despite the problems at the beginning of the free kick, and it was a perfect situation for a team that developed more depth than last year.

Iowa usually turns to freshman forward Hannah Stuelke, the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year who has been her X factor. He did not play after turning his ankle in the final three minutes of Saturday’s practice, Bluder said. The coach said he believes Stuelke will return to the Sweet 16.

Molly Davis, a transfer from Central Michigan, added to the bench last year and is averaging 18 minutes per game. But early in the contest, he sprained his leg under a defender in a pile-up and did not return to the game. Davis was seen on the bench without ice or a wrap, and Bluder said he still hasn’t heard anything since the win.

Bluder said the long commercial breaks that forced his starters to play for so long helped him. They had to step up defensively to try to limit guard Battles, who had a team-high 21 points with 6 rebounds and 3 steals. He called Abrahamson-Henderson “the best player on the floor tonight” and a big reason they stayed there, as well as the Bulldog zone.

Clarke said going into the contest there was little his team hadn’t seen defensively at this point and they were ready for anything. At least on Sunday, he proved that reason. With last season’s crushing defeat an old note in its story, well-rounded Iowa can move on to see one in Dallas.

Related Articles

Sorry, delete AdBlocks

Add Ban ads I wish to close them