IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Hawkeye faithful sold out Carver-Hawkeye Arena in record numbers for the final time this year to bear witness to their beloved Iowa Hawkeyes taking on the Creighton University Bluejays in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The game was televised on ABC and it was the highest attendance for a first and second round game in NCAA tournament history.
No. 2 Iowa got to this point by soundly defeating the No. 15 seed Illinois State Redbirds by 40 points, 98-58, on Friday.
No. 10 Creighton defeated No. 7 Colorado in a back-and-forth game, 84-74.
The teams have a long history of competing against one another, with the most recent contest being a closed door preseason scrimmage back in November. They last met in the NCAA tournament back in 2018.
The Hawkeyes and Bluejays have similar playing styles with a high emphasis on offensive prowess, particularly from the 3-point line.
The Hawkeyes and Bluejays have duked it out before but with the Sweet Sixteen on the line, the stakes were certainly higher.
From the start, both teams wasted no time as they traded baskets. The pace was blinding, the intensity was surging at both ends of the floor and the Carver crowd was relishing every moment.
At the 7:09 mark, Iowa was leading 11-9 with Monika Czinano scoring eight of those points in the paint.
The Bluejays were just as dynamic, especially from 3-point range and at the 4:01 mark they were leading 17-15 with nine of those points coming from beyond the arc and six coming from senior guard Payton Brotzki.
Meanwhile the Creighton defense was trying their hardest to limit Caitlin Clark’s ability to make plays and in many ways they were successful as she finished the quarter with just five points.
Creighton was able to get on a 6-2 run as the clock ran down, which in large part was catapulted by them grabbing rebounds on the offensive end that enabled them to set up good shots.
At the end of the first, the bluejays were clearly in control as they led 23-17. At the 7:33 minute mark of the second, they were leading 28-20 as they were still dynamite from the 3-point line and on the boards.
The Hawkeyes were starting to wane in energy and stamina as they couldn’t get on a run. Furthermore, they were not aggressive on the boards as the Blue Jays completely outrebounded them.
At 7:19 in the second, Clark hit a huge three that brought the Hawkeyes within five at 28-23 and got the Carver crowd on their feet. but that wasn’t enough to deter the Bluejay momentum.
At 4:58 in the second, Creighton was up 33-23, rendering the Hawkeyes uncertain with sophomore guard and Iowa transfer Lauren Jensen having 8 points.
The Hawkeyes had some good opportunities but couldn’t follow through and what was even more startling was that they were not crashing the boards.
With 45.9 seconds left in the first half, the Hawkeyes were on a 9-5 run that was capped off by a driving basket by Kylie Feuerbach that brought Iowa within six at 38-32.
As the third quarter began, the question begged whether Creighton would strengthen their lead or would Iowa stage a miraculous comeback? Iowa quickly got off to a good start, a sign that a comeback was possible.
At the 7:28 mark of the third, Czinano was continuing her dominant performance by scoring her 19th point in the paint to bring the Hawkeyes within two at 40-38. But the Bluejays did all they could to derail any hope of a comeback and it was working in their favor. At the 4:06 minute mark of the frame, they led 45-40.
As the clock began to tick, it started to become a back-and-forth contest with the teams trading baskets. With 54.6 seconds left in the third, Czinano hit two crucial free throws to bring the Hawkeyes within a basket. But the Bluejays quickly answered right back and entering the fourth they led 51-48.
It all came down to the fourth quarter, with the Sweet Sixteen waiting in the wings.
Clark brought Iowa within a point by hitting two free throws. Creighton would answer right back, but it would soon be deterred by Gabbie Marshall. At 7:18 remaining in the contest, Marshall brought Iowa back within a point by hitting a big three. At 6:46, she hit another three to give Iowa the lead at 56-54.
At 5:29, Czinano continued her MVP performance as she scored her 27th point to give the Hawkeyes a little bit of breathing room with a 58-54 lead. The hometown crowd was rocking with anticipation and excitement.
At 4:40, Jensen briefly quieted the crowd with a driving layup that brought the Blue Jays within a basket at 58-56.
With 2:57 left, Iowa’s Kate Martin hit a crucial basket off a great feed from Czinano to put the Hawkeyes up 60-56.
At 2:42, Jensen scored her 14th point off a big-time jumper, bringing the Blue Jays back within a basket at 60–58.
All the suspense, drama, and passion that comes with March Madness was on full display in the final minutes.
At 1:32, the Hawkeyes led 62-58, seemingly on the verge of overcoming their deficits in rebounding and 3-pointers.
But with 12.6 seconds to go, Jensen stuck a dagger into the hearts of the Hawkeye faithful with a huge three that put the Blue Jays up 63-62.
The Hawkeyes were forced to foul and Emma Ronsiek hit one of two free throws to give the Blue Jays a 64-62 lead with 3.6 seconds left.
A last-ditch effort wouldn’t do it as Creighton upset Iowa 64-62 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in what was a true tournament classic.
Jensen had 19 points, Czinano had 27 and Clark had 15.
It was a painful end to a promising and memorable season for the Hawkeyes, but afterwards both Clark and Czinano spoke about what their popularity this season meant to the overall growth of women’s basketball.
“I think what Iowa does to support women’s basketball is unlike anything elsewhere,” said Czinano. “I think we are a fun team to watch and people are picking up on that and it is drawing more eyes to the sport.”
Clark, who has been the face of the team for obvious reasons, spoke of legitimate disappointment in the end result but hinted at optimism for the future of the program.
“I think there is a lot of exciting basketball ahead for this group, but obviously the feeling of letting them (fans, coaches, teammates) down stinks right now,” she said. “I think overall this is more fuel for us going into next year.”
Coach Lisa Bluder echoed a strong sense of pride in a team that will bring the core group back, while also emotionally expressing the pain of the loss as anyone would.
“I am really proud of this team and the exciting thing is we returned everybody including the starting lineup” she said. “I love them and I can’t believe that I don’t get to go to practice tomorrow and that is the hardest thing for me.”
As for Creighton, Jensen and Brotzki, who had 13 points, spoke about what it meant to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history.
“This team loves each other unconditionally and it has been the most fun and most successful season I have ever had,” said Brotzki.
“It means a lot to have this team welcome me with open arms and to be able to do that with them is great,” said Jensen.
Creighton will face the winner of No. 3 Iowa State and No. 6 Georgia on next Friday in Greensboro, N.C.