After enduring a brief cancellation of games due to COVID-19 and capturing their first loss of the season to Duke, the Iowa Hawkeyes came home with a renewed sense of purpose as they took on their Big Ten rival Michigan State to begin conference play at Carver Hawkeye Arena.
Coming into this game, head coach Lisa Bluder needed to come out on top to capture career win No. 800 and officially join an elite class of legendary coaches.
The Spartans are getting considerable recognition for their offense and their ability to spread the ball around. They are first in the nation in assists with 181 as well as first in the Big Ten and fourth in the nation in assists per game, averaging 20.1. Their senior guard Nia Clouden is third in the Big Ten and 27th in the nation in scoring with an average of 19.6 points per game.
So it was safe to say the Hawkeyes, who also have a dynamic offense led by sophomore phenom Caitlin Clark, had their work cut for them.
From the start, it was clear that both teams were evenly matched and it was a constant back-and-forth battle for much of the first quarter but the Hawkeyes managed to get ahead by as much as eight.
All the while, Clark lived up to her status as a phenom by getting off to a phenomenal start. She scored 10 of the team’s first 16 points.
Yet, she did manage to obtain two fouls and, as a result, Iowa had to utilize her carefully going forward.
Nevertheless, the Hawkeye offense did a good job of getting the ball in the paint and finding those open looks to Monika Czinano to end the first quarter up 20-14.
In the second quarter, the Hawkeyes got on a brief roll and extended their lead to as much as 10.
But the Hawkeyes did have moments where they missed easy shots and didn’t get back on defensive transition, which allowed for the Spartans to claw their way back and eventually cut the Hawkeye lead to two.
The superb performance of Nia Clouden kept the Spartans within reach as she obtained a first-half team-high 14 points.
The first half ended with the Hawkeyes up by a basket, 39-37.
As the third quarter commenced, the Hawkeyes got back into a groove and found those open spaces in the paint to Czinano as well as junior guard/forward McKenna Warnock.
They were also dynamite from the perimeter and brought an energy and fever that they were lacking in the second quarter and the crowd at Carver seized it. In addition, the Spartans were showing signs of fatigue.
The Haweyes grew their lead to 16 at one point and Bluder was well on her way to that magical number.
Warnock was excellent from the perimeter and in the paint as she propelled her team to a 20-point lead toward the end of the third. Czinano held it down in the paint and on the boards.
The fourth quarter was merely a matter of playing until the final whistle blew.
In the end, Clark had a triple double with 24 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds. Warnock had 21 points and 6 rebounds and Czinano had 19 points and 7 rebounds.
The Hawkeyes won 88-61 and Bluder solidified her place in history.
She joins a special class that includes the likes of Pat Summitt, Vivian Stringer and Geno Auriemma, among others.
Afterwards, she summed up her feelings on joining this illustrious group with grace and humility.
“Blessed,” she said. “You are just thankful that you get to be in this profession for so long. ... For me to be in my 22nd year in Iowa, I am very fortunate.”
Clark also expressed the excitement of achieving this milestone and winning in such commanding fashion at home given the adversity her team had to overcome these last few weeks.
“It is always nice to come back to your home court and be in front of your fans who were incredible and had our backs,” she said. “We are the type of team that knows what we have to do.”
The Hawkeyes hit the road to take on their neighbor, No. 14 Iowa State, on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.