After a hard-fought year amid sky-high expectations and increased national visibility culminating in a second straight Big Ten Tournament championship, the Iowa Hawkeyes now begin what they hope is a run to a national title. For the second consecutive year, they are hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. They will play in front of sold out crowds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena as a No. 2 seed in the Seattle 4 Region.
Their last go-around was a heartbreaking exit in the second round against Creighton in a down-to-the-wire game.
To erase that memory, the Hawkeyes had to battle their way all year to prove that they are a perennial powerhouse in college basketball. Highlight reels, chemistry, and an overall healthy roster worked in their favor and carried them over to this point.
Superstar junior guard Caitlin Clark, who is in the running for the Naismith Player of the Year, spoke at the pre-practice press conference on Thursday about the team’s familiarity and their confidence to focus on the task at hand and the importance of playing their game to come out on top.
“We just want to come out and play Iowa basketball and be what we have been all year, “ she said. “I think that’s the most important thing for us is that we don’t have to change anything now that we are in the NCAA Tournament. We are playing teams that maybe we are not as familiar with. So just knowing your scout and coming out to do what we do every single night I think will be good for us.”
Senior guard Gabbie Marshall spoke about what distinguishes this year’s team from last year in terms of their preparation for the tournament.
“We have the mentality that we can’t take any team lightly this year,” she said. “We have a chip on our shoulder because of how we ended last year and we don’t want to feel that again. I think we just came out strong this year, ready to compete, and ready to work hard.”
Coach Lisa Bluder addressed the depth of the Hawkeye bench with the likes of freshman forward Hannah Stuelke, freshman guard Molly Davis, and sophomore guard Sydney Affolter contributing greatly this year and how their presence will be vital in the tournament with the small period of rest in between games.
“I think anytime you have that depth it sure helps you get through a Big Ten Tournament when you play back to back-to-back,” she said. “The NCAA Tournament we usually have a day in between. The grind of a long season is real and you can see a lot of teams are banged up around the country, we’re not. I think that speaks to the depth that we have been able to use the last couple of months and the year.”
Their first-round opponent was No. 15 seed Southeastern Louisiana, which was coming off its best regular season in program history and developing a reputation for being competitive with their scrappy style of defense that has generated a respectable No. 28 ranking in limiting their opponents in points per 100 possessions.
While their offensive game wasn’t spectacular, their defense has enabled them to remain resilient against top-ranked teams such as LSU and Alabama earlier in the year.
Simply put, the Hawkeyes had to come in focused and not take anything for granted.
They began the game off to the races, knowing that they would outpace the much slower Lions with their vibrant offense. They also knew that the Lions would put as much pressure on them as they could, particularly Clark. After a quick 10-4 lead, the Hawkeyes slowed down their offense when they got in transition so as not to risk turning the ball over.
That measured approach did wonders, as Iowa was able to move the ball well and generate some points from the outside, in the paint, and at the free throw line.
With 4:28 remaining, the Hawkeyes led 15-8 and Clark had notched 12 points.
When play resumed after a TV timeout, the Lions were hustling and muscling their way into the game. They would have an answer for Iowa after every basket they would make with some pull-up jumpers in the paint.
But they couldn’t stop Monika Czinano in the paint, as she would score six points inside and spearhead a solid 8-4 run for Iowa, a run that was capped off at the 2:24 mark by a Molly Davis floating jumper to put the Hawkeyes up by double digits at 23-12.
As the quarter came to a close, the Hawkeyes were ahead as most had expected them to be. With one minute left, Kate Martin hit a wide-open three to make it 28-15, and, after a Lions basket, the ball found its way into the hands of Clark with the seconds ticking away. She had an open drive to the basket and ended up missing what would have been a buzzer-beater.
After one, Iowa led 28-17.
The second quarter is typically when the Hawkeyes get out on a run and it was none other than Clark that was to be the catalyst.
Just 13 seconds into the quarter, she stole the ball at mid-court from guard Cierria Cunningham, maneuvered her way between two defenders, laid it up off the glass, drew the foul, and converted on the extra point to make it 31-17.
But the tide started to turn just a bit. Even though the Hawkeyes were in control for the most part, the Lions were still right there to answer. Within the first three minutes of the second, sophomore guard Taylor Bell and senior guard Chrissy Brown combined for 13 points; Bell with seven and Brown with six.
They did it with smart shooting within the perimeter, getting back in transition, crashing the boards, and putting on just the right amount of pressure to force Iowa into turnovers.
With 7:12 remaining, Iowa’s lead was 35-23.
At 6:48, McKenna Warnock got on the board with a 3-pointer that made it 38-23.
Then there was a three-minute-plus stretch where neither side was able to get a bucket even with some good looks. That spell was finally broken by a running floater by Jen Pierre that cut the Hawkeye lead to 38-27. However, after that came an epic 12-2 Iowa run over less than a minute and a half. The Hawkeyes increased their lead to 22 and would not relinquish it going into the locker as they led 54-32.
The earlier stages of the second half saw a dramatic shift on the part of the Hawkeyes. Even though they had a sizable lead in the 20s, they started to show some signs of fatigue. They had some trouble moving the ball around, were missing shots they would normally make, and weren’t attacking the glass.
The same was true on the other side.
Halfway through the third quarter, each side only had four points respectively as Iowa held onto a 58-36 lead. Clark got the intensity back with a 3-pointer at 5:27 that made it 61-36 and gave her 22 points.
Eventually, Iowa saw a 30-point lead in sight and it was just a matter of who and when. At the 3:15 mark, it was Stuelke who spun her way into the lane for the hook to put them up 68-38.
At the end of the third quarter, three Hawkeyes (Clark, Czinano, and Stuelke) had reached double figures. Iowa won the third 23-9 to give itself a 75-41 lead. The Hawkeyes had one more quarter to add to their dominance.
At 8:28, Bell was called for her second intentional foul, which ended the game for her, and put Clark at the free throw line where she converted on both attempts to put the Hawkeyes up 83-41. It was shortly thereafter that the Iowa starters began to make their way to bench for a much-needed rest.
When all was said and done, the Hawkeyes came into their own building and did what most had expected of them. They steamrolled their way to a first-round victory, 95-43.
Clark had another double-double of 26 points, 12 assists, and seven rebounds. Czinano had 22 points and eight rebounds. Stuelke had 13 points and five rebounds. Warnock had six points and eight rebounds. Davis had six points and one assist.
Cunningham had 15 points, three rebounds and one assist. Bell had 9 points, one rebound, and one assist. Brown had eight points, seven rebounds, and one assist.
As a team, Iowa had a total of 45 rebounds compared to 31 for SE Louisiana. The Hawkeyes’ second-round opponent, Georgia, had a total of 48 in their 66-54 victory against Florida State, including 13 by sophomore forward Javn Nicholson. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder spoke to how vital rebounding will be to their game plan.
“They’ve got some great rebounders on the Georgia team,” she said. “We have got to make contact and box out because they are exceptional offensive rebounders. So definitely rebounds will be a factor.”
Iowa (27-6) will play No. 10 seed Georgia (22-11) on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET (ABC).