Coming off a solid performance during the Phil Knight Invitational in Oregon, the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes came back home to take on a formidable opponent in the No. 12 NC State Wolfpack on Thursday night as part of this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Iowa came into this contest remaining in good standing on the national front as it managed to stay in contention with the No. 3 UConn Huskies last Sunday in Oregon even while coming up short 86-79.
However, there are some things that still need to be worked on.
As their schedule starts to get more competitive, the Hawkeyes’ resolve will be tested. They have one of the best scoring and high-performing offenses in the country but are still trying to find their footing when it comes to defense and rebounding. The general feeling is that if they want to make it past their conference, they have to show themselves to be a team that can be effective on all fronts.
Early on during Thursday’s contest, the Hawkeyes struck a balance between playing with blinding pace but also with a mindfulness of assessing the situation. It didn’t take long for that approach to work in their favor and in particular for none other than Caitlin Clark, who scored the team’s first nine points in the first six minutes of the game.
The Hawkeye defense largely stifled the Wolfpack and the team’s rebounding — courtesy of Monika Czinano who grabbed four boards early on — was solid early on. Also, the Hawkeyes managed to move the ball around with total effectiveness. With 4:38 left in the first quarter, Iowa led 9-3.
The time remaining in the opening frame showcased the Hawkeyes’ strengths, but also their vulnerabilities. One of their strengths being the talent of their bench, which had more depth than the Wolfpack’s. The most notable player was Hannah Stuelke who scored six points right off the bat, fulfilling the role of Iowa’s secret weapon. Other strengths were their still-solid defense, rebounding and fairly decent outside shooting. Their vulnerabilities were turnovers and their inside game, which the Wolfpack were able to take advantage of and get back into the game. At the end of the first quarter, Iowa led 17-13.
As the second quarter commenced, it was a matter of the Hawkeyes exuding their strengths and improving on their weaknesses.
After an exchange of baskets, at 8:23 Wolfpack junior Diamond Johnson hit a crucial three to bring the game within a basket at 21-19. At 7:26, the Wolfpack tied the game on a fast break layup by sophomore guard Saniya Rivers. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes were starting to show early signs of fatigue, missing shots and turning the ball over. At 7:05, Wolfpack forward and graduate student Mimi Collins converted on two free throws to put her team ahead 23-21.
At 6:55, McKenna Warnock tied things up after she made two free throws. At 6:39, Clark stole the ball and laid it up to give the lead back to the Hawkeyes at 25-23. At 6:06, Collins hit a three to give the Wolfpack the lead at 26-25, but it didn’t last long, as, at 5:59, Clark hit a three right back to make it 28-26 Hawkeyes.
The game became a back-and-forth battle with the Wolfpack starting to regain momentum as they were capitalizing on the Hawkeyes’ flaws. NC State’s offense was able to generate points off critical baskets and its defense was able to force Iowa’s offense into a state of chaos. With 4:35 left before halftime, NC State led 30-28.
As the quarter wound down, it became urgent for Iowa to regain control of the game again. There was yet another exchange of baskets resulting in the Wolfpack leading by as many as six points. With just under a minute to play before halftime, the game was starting to slip away from the Hawkeyes and they desperately needed a break. Clark hit a fadeaway jumper to cut the NC State lead to four at the half.
The third quarter began with the Hawkeyes needing to regroup and capitalize off the Clark jumper that ended the first half. They did come out with a more charged-up dynamic than they had throughout much of the second quarter, but that wasn’t enough to stop the ever-surging Wolfpack, who were starting to widen their margin, leading but as much as ten approaching the six-minute mark.
The Wolfpack were clicking on all cylinders and the Hawkeyes were forced into panic mode. Not only was their outside offense becoming obsolete, but their inside game was being entirely neutralized as Wolfpack center Camille Hobby was able to hold Czinano at bay by forcing her to miss shots she would normally make and into scrambling for the ball on occasions. With 4:38 left in the third, NC State led 50-42.
The remaining minutes of the quarter became a battle of keeping the game under ten points because the Wolfpack had managed to lead by as many as that. That effort was put in jeopardy at the 2:38 mark when Rivers hit a jumper from the left corner to make it 56-44 NC State.
The air had started to go out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena as there was a sense that the game was slipping away. But at 1:47, Czinano muscled her way through the lane for a basket that briefly got the crowd back into it and cut it to 57-48.
With 56 seconds left before the fourth, McKenna Warnock hit a big three to cut it to 59-51, but the enthusiasm was quieted quickly after a comeback three by Rivers made 62-51. With 4.4 seconds left, Warnock hit two free throws to make it 63-53 entering the fourth.
As the fourth quarter got underway, the question became whether or not the Hawkeyes could stage a remarkable comeback. It began with an exchange of 3-pointers between the two sharpshooters of the game: Clark and Rivers.
At 8:31, Clark hit a deep three to cut it to 66-61. From there, she did what she does best and took the team on her shoulders, quickly hitting another long one to make it 68-64. She got the crowd energized by raising her arms in the air. By this point she had 41 points.
But for every spectacular Clark three, the Wolfpack answered right back with a basket to hold onto the lead and with 6:36 left, they led 72-64. A major catalyst was that NC State was able to maximize its talent to such a degree that everyone contributed whereas Iowa seemed to simply rely on Clark to get them through.
At 6:31, Iowa’s Kate Martin hit a three off an inbound play to cut it 72-67, but at 6:10 Johnson answered right back with a three to make it 75-67.
The intensity in the arena was palpable and hopes for a comeback were still in the air considering the time that was left. But at 5:11, the Wolfpack brought it back to a 10-point lead at 79-69 with a basket by Hobby.
At 4:58, Martin hit a three to bring it back to single digits at 79-72. However, it was becoming clear that the Wolfpack were shooting the ball with such consistency that it seemed as if everything they threw up went for it. Plus if they missed, they were able to put the ball back as the Hawkeyes were starting to struggle on the glass.
With 3:56 left, NC State led 81-74. At the 1:35 mark, Johnson, off a missed three, was able to get her own rebound for a put-back that made it 87-77. A basket here and a free throw or two there was all the Wolfpack needed to come away victorious, 94-81.
The Wolfpack’s consistent shooting and Iowa's poor defensive performance are what produced this end result.
Clark had 45 points, two assists and seven rebounds. Johnson had 22 points, four assists, and nine rebounds.
Afterward, Warnock, who finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, and two assists, spoke to not only the need for defensive improvement but also that of rebounding in which they had a total of 30 compared to the Wolfpack’s 35.
“We were just kind of off key the entire night,” she said. “We rotated slowly and that would get us out of position for boxing out. I think it is more urgency that we need and that is totally on us and what we need to work on.”
Iowa (5-3) will hit the road to play Wisconsin (3-6) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.