IOWA CITY, Iowa — March is unique for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the madness it brings.
Speaking of madness, Carver-Hawkeye Arena was packed to capacity to watch the hometown Iowa Hawkeyes take on the Illinois State Redbirds in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Both are playing in the Greensboro region with Iowa the No. 2 seed and Illinois State the No. 15 seed.
The Hawkeyes came into the tournament on a seven-game winning streak that included winning the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships. They were rewarded as a host for the first and second rounds of the Big Dance.
With home court advantage, an experienced roster and Caitlin Clark being one of the best players in the nation, Iowa came in with extraordinary expectations to live up to. But at least it came in with those things working in its favor.
The Redbirds were making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008 after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. They have a couple high-caliber players in leading scorer Juliunn “JuJu” Redmond (17.6 points per game) and power forward DeAnna Wilson (13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game).
In March anything can happen and the stage was set for a grand performance.
From the start, both teams were patient with one another; neither came out of the gates storming.
Iowa was particularly cool from the 3-point line whereas Illinois State was getting some good shots in the paint.
For most of the first quarter, the sides traded baskets and at the 4:29 mark the score was tied at 12.
At the 2:09 mark of the opening frame, Clark scored her ninth point in the form of a full court layup off a steal to cap off a 7-1 run that put the Hawkeyes up 19-13.
But the Redbirds were not going away quietly as their defense managed to quell Iowa’s momentum. At the end of the first, the Hawkeyes led 21-15.
As the second quarter began, the Redbirds, the clear underdogs, were showing that they came to play and kept themselves in the game. A huge factor was junior guard and Iowa City resident Mary Crompton, who scored her 11th point off a 3-pointer at the 9:14 mark.
But Iowa managed to do what it does best, which is to control the game. At the 6:18 mark of the second, Iowa was up 31-22. At the 5:49 mark, McKenna Warnock increased the lead to double digits at 34-22 with a three.
Monika Czinano, who was rather quiet in the first quarter, came alive in the second as she made crucial baskets in the paint and at the 1:08 mark put the Hawkeyes up 41-29.
Tomi Taiwo got the crowd on their feet with a full court layup off a steal with 31.5 seconds left in the first half and when the buzzer sounded for halftime Iowa led 43-29.
With the third quarter underway, the question became whether Iowa would grow its lead. At the 8:39 mark, Czinano helped to start that effort by scoring in the paint, plus a free throw. At the 8:03 mark, Kate Martin increased the lead to 20 with a three. At 7:32, a brief scare hit Carver as Cailtin Clark was seen limping after being knocked to the ground going for a loose ball. She quickly shrugged it off and got back into the game to a thunderous applause. At 7:20, a three by Gabbie Marshall capped an epic 11-0 run that put the Hawkeyes up 52-29.
Clark took to the bench to rest but her team was well in control of the contest.
Juju Redmond scored her 11th point and the first field goal for the Redbirds in the third at the 6:45 mark.
Clark quickly got back into the game and was pretty much content with being the playmaker. At the 4:50 minute mark of the third, with Iowa up 57-33, she was only at 15 points.
Iowa was playing its game all-around and its bench, which has not always been its strongest asset, contributed in big ways as the third quarter came to a close.
With 54.7 seconds left before the fourth, Taiwo reached her 8th point off a 3-pointer that put the Hawkeyes up 72-47. Allison O’Grady then hit a buzzer-beater to put Iowa up 74-47 with one quarter left.
The fourth quarter was simply a matter of how fast we would get to the final buzzer.
At the 8:23 minute mark of the final frame, Clark scored her 24th point off yet another full court layup and 26 seconds later she dished out another epic assist to Czinano who scored her 18th point, increasing the lead to 80-47.
Ultimately, the Hawkeyes did what they set out to do, which is to set the tone from the beginning. And what better place to do so than before their home crowd.
In the end, Iowa won by 40 points, 98-58.
Clark ended with 27 points; Czinano had 18, Taiwo had 13 and Marshall had 13.
For Illinois State, Redmond had 25 points and Crompton had 11.
Afterwards, coach Lisa Bluder spoke of the importance of having the bench players such as Taiwo and O’Grady contribute as they did.
“Tomi is a senior and I think she is playing some of the best basketball of her career” she said. “I have so much confidence in her shooting the ball and she gives us a defensive spark as well and I think she has added so much to our bench play.
“Addy has gotten better all year, she is learning to be more aggressive and I am happy with the way she is developing.”
Czinano spoke about the excitement of winning the first round game in front of a home crowd.
“I think it makes it so much easier knowing that you have that amount of people cheering for you and motivating you” she said. “We are so lucky and we come out 15 yards ahead of the gate, metaphorically speaking.”
Iowa will take on No. 10 seed Creighton in the second round from Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday.