Top 25 Games of the Caitlin Clark Era


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HONORABLE MENTION: **IUPUI 74 IOWA 73 – Pre – Christmas, 2021; **LSU 102 IOWA 85 – 2023 NCAA Tournament Championship Game; **IOWA 94 DePaul 72 – “Crossover at Kinnick” exhibition – Fall of 2023; **ANY of the 1st – round games of either the B.T.T. or the NCAA Tournaments – any year.

These games have virtually nothing in common with each other. Admittedly, one is a real eye–opener. But this is the quickest summary of what Iowa women’s basketball has been through, including a pair of games that showed just how far we’ve come in the Caitlin Clark era.

I included the IUPUI game because of what the reality was in Clark’s freshman season, especially early on. This game took place during Christmas break when there were no students on campus. Tickets for this game literally sold for $1. And a set of curtains were extended at C.H.A. to make the arena look fuller than it was (attendance – <5,000). And back in those days, even games like this occasionally ended as (shocking) losses – and games against respectable teams in their gyms were almost certain losses. That was where this saga began.

But after that, look at what happened. There was so much success that the eight first–round games in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were blowouts that were reduced to “also–ran” status on this list. The girls expected to win – and win big in those games. And they usually did.

And their success was so amazing that two really, really notable games could not crack the “top 25”. Admittedly, the “Crossover at Kinnick” maybe should’ve made the list, as it was groundbreaking in SO many ways. Ok, national champions in several women’s sports want to expand their base by having special events like this. But this exhibition was a tribute to fans who just could not get enough of watching this team – which by year’s end spanned the entire country. But it is on this list because it was only an exhibition game.

Sadly, just like three Rose Bowls could only make “honorable mention” in the greatest ever games in the Hayden Fry era, a national championship game had to be added to this list. It’s not that it wasn’t historic (as the final list will clearly show). It’s just that this game, after what MUST go down as one of the greatest upsets in the history of women’s college basketball, wasn’t much of a game. Still, in the next section, there is a tribute to this game.

And the two losses in the championship game were a good reminder of what it takes to become the nation’s true #1. It’s more than just being a – or even THE top team. On three consecutive weekends, you have to win two games against top teams. Usually those games are a good 48 hrs. apart. But on the championship weekends in both 2023 and ’24, women’s college basketball had not (yet) been given elite Sunday placements. Which meant, especially if you were the second game late on Friday night (and Iowa was both times), your time between games was exceedingly short – not good for a team that spent so much to win their semi–final games and also only had a really short bench. But even if the fuel and depth needed to win was just plain not there on two Sundays, the ladies proved with a pair of Friday night wins how good they were – and hence cemented our pride for the team.
Whether I add these one a day or one every other day, watch for them. And if they don't show up, it is because I am losing patience with the software for this forum site, which takes forever, and often has to be reloaded - several times. Even then, sometimes it just defaults back to the main page.
For this first day, I will add two more posts:

25TH: #1 South Carolina 87 #2 IOWA 75 – 2024 NCAA Tournament Championship.

For the official list, we’ll start here. Again, a loss – and it is the only loss on the list. But the fact that this game was played with Iowa in it for a second straight year was historic – and showed both the genius of Lisa Bluder and her staff as well as the hard work put in both by Caitlin Clark and all the girls that returned after the first national championship runner–up team.

But if we are being honest, we HAVE to ask the question: “What was THIS team doing in back–to–back national championship games?” OK, in 2023, Iowa showed how it could actually be done once. They were beneficiaries of some upsets (including the regional #1 seed), and would’ve been favored in every game except South Carolina. And then, you just play a game for the ages, even if it is just in the semifinals. But back here again??

Two in a row places you into truly elite company – the company that is usually reserved for teams that, from the beginning, had elite All–American talent, sometimes right down to a couple of ladies that hardly ever got off the bench, the team was so deep. And no matter who they were playing, their talent just overwhelmed most of the teams they played, even if those opposing teams had near genius game plans to beat them. That was NOT Iowa.

At the beginning of the year, even the most ardent Hawkeye fan must’ve had some doubts that this season could come even close to the way the previous one did. But now that it is over, it could actually be said that, based on record and overall season achievements, this 2023–‘24 team may have been the better team of the two. And even though we would come to learn that, yes, Kate Martin IS talented enough to make a WNBA team, nobody had such thoughts about any other player on this team not named Caitlin Clark.

OK, Iowa lost. It is still a loss, and one that stung, especially for what very likely now was the end of an era. And we learned why in the previous section. It was SO difficult watching a totally spent Caitlin Clark get her pocket picked so easily in the last minute of the 1st half, then watching her, seemingly for the first time, seeming almost uncaring in the game’s final 4½ minutes, when again, the “low fuel light” had just been on for way too long. With no bench to draw upon (just like the previous season), they just could not summon up a final rally.

But some truly notable things happened. First of all, despite that clear lopsidedness in both talent and depth, the Hawkeyes hung in there most of the game and made it enjoyable to watch for the largest–ever TV audience in the history of ESPN. And make no mistake, that record audience had tuned in (just like in all the previous games) specifically to watch Caitlin Clark. And after beating an even more talented South Carolina team the previous year, the Hawk women had shown that they were up to the task of beating the biggest blue–blooded giants of the women’s basketball world, especially when given the chance to properly prepare.

OK, 2nd place is still just 2nd place. But being seeded 2nd and finishing 2nd has absolutely no shame associated with it. These girls, all of whom looked like they could’ve lived just up the street from you, got to the top of the women’s college basketball world – twice! And in so doing, let a whole country find out who this Caitlin Clark really is. In the years to come, when we watch highlights of this game, we may still wonder just how a group like this could’ve come so close to doing what they did against teams supposedly bigger and faster than they were. The fact they did shows just how far a team being a true team can get.

Since I started preparing this came the shocking (or was it??) announcement of the retirement of head coach Lisa Bluder. And since these are being sent in reverse order, I did not want to have the readers of this to wait long to pay tribute to her career, especially at Iowa.

Following this tribute will come the 24th greatest game (probably tomorrow) - it will go through Bluder’s career quite thoroughly. And regardless of who may be regarded as one of the greatest women’s coaches ever (and one has to wonder how many national lists in the decades to come will include her, even after the last four years), one thing we can say, and with pride, is that she was perfect for Caitlin Clark and the young ladies that played around her.

And it remains to be seen how much of a difference “Bluder ball” will make in the women’s games in the years to come. One thing is for sure – she had no patience for the stodgy, slow–paced “scrum” that not only defined the game but also became a term many of its previous stars would speak about with pride (like fights and fouls were something to be really proud of). Even though it was vast improvement on the defensive side that moved Bluder's Iowa squads into the teams that were able to reach a national finals – twice – it was their offense that made the game SO entertaining, even before Caitlin Clark arrived.

And once Clark did arrive, it may have taken fans from a few months to a few years to recognize and appreciate this unbelievably entertaining style of ball. But once they did, this team, led by this coach, set both attendance and viewership marks NO ONE had ever thought possible with the women’s game. Even then, while it generated Caitlin Clark haters (and this author is of the opinion that these people were mostly jealous she didn’t go to their school and do that for their team), I don’t think anybody had become a Lisa Bluder hater. She brought IOWA to Iowa basketball, and made us feel like some girl from just around the country road had hit it big and was now leading this bunch - which, especially if you spent your teenage years around Marion (which this author did), that actually was the case.

This may sound old–fashioned, but “tip–of–the–fedora” to Lisa Bluder, whose greatness matched the greatest coaches we have ever had in Iowa City (short of Dan Gable), and who accomplished ALL of it in our back yard! ENJOY YOUR RETIREMENT!!
T – 24TH: IOWA 76 Michigan State 73 – first game of the 2024 calendar year.
T – 24TH: IOWA 83 Nebraska 66 – B.T.T. semi–finals game, 2022.

This may be about the “Caitlin Clark era”, but it’s doubtful two national runner–up finishes would have been possible without the tutelage of Lisa Bluder and her staff. That said, there was a time when one had to wonder if national notoriety would ever happen with her at the helm. Not that she wasn’t a good – actually great coach. But the level of talent that she was usually able to recruit through so many of her first almost 20 years at the helm just could not stand up to the better teams.
She showed her own talent by coming almost straight out of college (UNI) to coach at St. Ambrose and then gave them six straight winning seasons and four trips to the N.A.I.A. nationals, including two trips to that version’s Final Four. She followed that up with ten solid years at Drake, that included four trips to the NCAA tournament in six years, once their women’s basketball had joined the Missouri Valley conference, winning the conference tournament in each of those years. Her team even won one of those NCAA games.

But when she got to Iowa, even though she had almost immediate success, winning the conference tournament in 2001, she spent most of her first 19 years being a good but not great coach. She never got a single team as far as the Sweet 16 until year 15, but then followed that up with her worst three–year stretch at Iowa, where she failed to make the NCAA tournament twice, and went out in the first round (again) the other year.

Also, after that early championship, never once in those following seventeen years did she win the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament. In fact, she only finished runner–up one time – in 2014, when the Hawk team, playing their fourth game in four days, after losing a regular–season tiebreaker for fourth place, fell late to #3 seed Nebraska.

The arrival and eventual elite play of Megan Gustafson changed that, giving Iowa their first conference tournament championship since 2001, and first Elite Eight appearance (both in 2019) since the 1990’s. THAT is what brought Caitlin Clark on board. The rest is history.

As for the two games themselves, once again, these were a couple of games that seemingly had almost nothing in common with each other, except that Iowa won both games. But they were a microcosm of an extra–special era, and the little nuances that would accompany it.

Michigan State was Iowa’s first game on the streaming–only network, Peacock, a network every fan seemed to learn to loathe – and not just Hawk fans. One could say that, compared to previous seasons, when games like this would not be on any TV (except for the almost totally ignored and useless ESPN+ or BTN+ streams), having it on some kind of TV was a demonstration of a HUGE step in the right direction for women’s basketball. But it still did not get people either loving or, shall we say, streaming to this streaming–only network.

OK, this game was a whole lot closer than it should’ve been, especially in C.H.A. A couple of THE most unbelievable shots of the Caitlin Clark era - including one that didn't count - happened in that game, and it turned out we all the ones that did count to pull this game out. And the closeness of it got both of the Michigan schools complaining that they were left out of the teams that got to host Iowa in home games that surely would’ve been sell–outs – and maybe also home wins to boost recruiting, as any Clark appearance in an opposing gym ended up meaning the school was going to host many of their premier recruits that night – and in more sports than just women’s hoops.

This game was also a bit of a throwback in that, in earlier years, a 40–point effort from Caitlin Clark usually meant a loss by the team – and it just about happened again. Only one other girl scored in double figures (Hannah Stuelke – 15 pts.). But with Kate Martin pulling down 11 rebounds, Molly Davis having one of the best all–around games in her Iowa career (8 pts., 8 reb’s., 4 assists & 2 steals), and a last–second Clark “3”, Iowa held off the stubborn Spartans.

As for Nebraska, while it was one of three key games Iowa needed to win – and did – this one stood out because Caitlin Clark set a mark that it would seem became her calling card in a number of key post–season games, scoring exactly 41 points. Iowa dominated the 2nd half of this game to place them into the championship game vs. another team that will make this list more than once – the Indiana Hoosiers.

One more footnote on this game. At the end of the game, as Bluder emptied her bench for the final seconds, a young freshman named Sydney Affolter took the floor, if only briefly. I doubt anybody even noticed the name. But she would not stay forgotten for long.
Lisa Bluder certainly deserves every kudo she gets. One of the great coaches in Iowa history. She coached at least three national players of the year. And she left the program totally under control with a great successor. Has any other Iowa coach done that?
Lisa Bluder certainly deserves every kudo she gets. One of the great coaches in Iowa history. She coached at least three national players of the year. And she left the program totally under control with a great successor. Has any other Iowa coach done that?
Two other legendary coaches at least thought they had. One was Dan Gable, the other was Lute Olson. But I know where you're going with that, and you're right.
23RD: IOWA 73 (at) Oregon State 56semi–final game of the 2022 Phil Knight legacy Thanksgiving tournament in Portland, OR.

Compared to so many other games in the Caitlin Clark era, this game by and large had stayed under the radar. It was early in the first of the two magical seasons, and at a Thanksgiving tournament held when most people had (supposedly) better things to do – like watching the final game of the Iowa football team’s regular season earlier on that Black Friday, losing to Nebraska. And it was only the semifinal game, with the Hawk women getting UConn in the championship – a competitive game that they lost late but were very competitive in right up to the final horn. Finally, it was against a Beaver team that ended that season sub–.500.

So why is this game even on the list? Well, with almost the same personnel, this Oregon State team turned into an Elite Eight team the next season, losing a tough, close game to the same South Carolina team that beat the Hawk women for the national championship. And the fingerprints that showed that could happen were all over this Oregon State team.

Add to it the fact that this was close to a home game for Oregon State, being played just up the road in Portland, and that the Beaver women had one thing that usually gave Iowa fits – size – lots of it, and you have the makings of a game Iowa would not have expected to win in years past. But this was the first game of a true metamorphosis for the Hawk women. This was one game they needed to win with defense. And if they were ever going to move up to the elite stage of women’s basketball, Bluder’s bunch were going to have to add that capability to their already exciting offense.

That evening, they did. This night was the beginning of the transformation to a defense–first guard by the name of Gabbie Marshall. Though at times she looked like a middle school girl trying to compete against a high school team size–wise, her four steals, complemented by a solid overall floor game by Kate Martin and a combined 29 points by Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock kept the Hawks in control. Meanwhile, Clark was her usual self, just missing a triple double with 29 pts., 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Iowa scored a season–high 73 points against the rugged Beavers, while holding them to one of their lowest point totals of the season. The skills they showed that night defensively would be on display for the rest of the Caitlin Clark era – and they would need to be.
22ND: IOWA 73 (#3 seed) Rutgers 62 – Big Ten Conference Tournament Quarterfinals game, 2021.

It has already been written about how an abundance of patience has paid off for fans of the Hawkeye women. Remembering that this particular game took place well before the “glory years”, this may have been one of the first games where that patience was finally paying off.

And now that we can look back, the Big Ten conference tournament finally seemed to have become part of Lisa Bluder’s personal domain. Her record is an almost unheard–of 15–2 in the tournament her last six seasons, including 12–1 in the Caitlin Clark era. And when you consider one of those two losses came in the lost season (due to COVID) of 2019–’20, which was the season between the end of the Gustafson era and the start of the Clark era, (even if Iowa still had that season’s B1G player–of–the–year, Kathleen Doyle), it becomes even more impressive.

This game was the tournament highlight for the Hawkeye women in Clark’s freshman season. In a season filled with postponements and cancellations due to the continuing effects of COVID, Iowa was awarded a 6–seed at season’s–end, forcing them into a four–game schedule to win the tournament. And after vanquishing 11th–seed Purdue on Thursday, waiting in the wings was one of the newest additions to the B1G, Rutgers, and former Iowa head coach C. Vivian Stringer.

Stringer, by the time she retired a season later, had won over 1,000 games at Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers, taking Iowa to the Final Four in 1993 (a year after her husband died of a heart attack), and took the other two to national championship games (in 1982 and 2007, respectively). This was her 26th season at Rutgers, and her final really good team – one that finished a close 3rd, despite playing only 13 conference games by season’s end (the same number played by #4 seed Michigan), which left the Scarlet Knights behind surprise (at the time) #2-seed Indiana, and what seemed to be (again, at that time) the perennial regular season conference champion, Maryland, having won six of the last seven titles.

But the changing of the guard was beginning, and it showed in this game. Iowa’s level of offensive execution just overwhelmed Rutgers, with a sophomore named Gabbie Marshall pacing the Hawk women with a career stat–sheet: 27 pts., 7 rebounds, 5 steals and 4 assists. With 22 points from Clark and 20 from Czinano, it was more than enough.

A little postscript. Iowa’s ONLY loss in the B.T.T. in the Caitlin Clark era came two days later against mighty Maryland. This juggernaut included all–B1G players Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, and even included a tall, skinny starter named Angel Reese, who transferred to another school (LSU) at season’s end, at least in part due to eligibility and grade issues.
21ST: IOWA 96 [at] #5 Indiana 91 – 2022 Regular season.

If a team is going to transition from being just OK to good to finally getting to be downright elite, one thing that has to happen is the ability to beat any team on any floor, including on the opposing team’s home floor. And that can’t just be the “sisters of the poor” (both in and outside of the conference) but has to include some of the nation’s really good teams as well.

Not that many years before this game, not many outside the Hoosier state would ever have considered the Indiana women as one of the really good teams. And perhaps that was a mistake. One of the true legendary coaches of women’s college basketball, Tara VanDerveer, who just retired from Stanford after winning over 1,000 games there and over 1,200 overall, played her college basketball at Indiana. Then, the first year the women joined the B1G women’s conference (1982), they finished on top with a record of 15–3 and got to the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament.

Then when current coach Teri Moren arrived in 2014, the Hoosier women moved to near elite status ever since, becoming virtually unbeatable in Assembly Hall. Going into this season, even though Indiana had lost a couple of key players, they were coming off a year where they beat overall #2–rated North Carolina State in the NCAA tournament before falling in the Elite Eight to an Arizona team that lost the national championship game (to Stanford) by one point.

And despite the Hoosiers having lost four games earlier in the season, all except one to Top 10 teams, including #2 North Carolina State exacting revenge from the previous year in Bloomington, they were rated #5 in the country going into this game against the Hawk women - they still seemed just as unbeatable at home as they always had been.

As for the Hawkeye women, their season up to now had been, at best, uneven. They had already lost four games at home – and while that did include the likes of top teams like Ohio State and Maryland, they also included Northwestern and that previously mentioned IUPUI game. And the only reason they actually had a reasonably good road record (up to that time) was because so many games were still being postponed or cancelled due to COVID leftovers.

And so, with time running out in the regular season, it was decided that Iowa and Indiana would play a home–and–home two days apart, first in Bloomington on a Saturday, then in Iowa City on a Monday – the kind of scheduling creativity COVID leftovers brought about.

For the growing throngs that followed the women closely, even the most optimistic fan would’ve had to cast serious doubt on Iowa’s ability to win both games – and for some, even one. But they did – including this shocker of a win in Bloomington – one of only three losses at Assembly Hall in almost three full seasons. And bluntly, the final score gives no clue how lopsided this win was.

With a balanced attack, Iowa controlled the game from the opening tip and never trailed, leading 71–49 going into the 4th qtr. This was where the overall game presence of Caitlin Clark began to shine as she racked up 12 assists and 7 rebounds to go with her 18 points. McKenna Warnock and Monika Czinano combined for 43 points to help break through the glass ceiling of being unable to beat good teams on the road, something they would need a lot of in the upcoming seasons.

Incidentally, two days later at C.H.A., the Hawks were dominated in the 1st half, trailing by 12 at intermission before putting on a clinic in the 2nd half, outscoring Indiana 47–30, for an 88–82 final. The law firm of Clark–Czinano combined to bill the Hoosiers for 60 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists. And while no one knew it at the time, this was the beginning of Iowa and Caitlin Clark living in the minds of Indiana fans, rent–free, something that would REALLY show itself one year later.
20TH: IOWA 77 #16 Kansas State 70 – Gulf Coast Showcase Thanksgiving Weekend Tournament Championship in Estero, Florida – 2023.

This game makes the top 20 for two reasons. #1 is that Kansas State seemed to have been Iowa’s kryptonite, as the Wildcats took both games of an early–season home–and–home exactly 12 months apart, including a (now) rare loss at C.H.A. just 10 days before this game. The other is that this was played in what is becoming one of the more prestigious women’s holiday basketball tournaments of the year.

If you didn’t know anything about Florida Gulf Coast, you would assume that this is a holiday tournament held in (near) Fort Myers, Florida simply because it makes for a great holiday destination just as the weather starts getting really nasty up north. OK, that may still be the case. But this is no ordinary host we are dealing with, even if they are from a mid–major conference, and even if they have only existed as a university since 1997.

Florida Gulf Coast University is simply one of THE most dominant mid–major schools in women’s basketball in the entire country. Unless you are a blueblood of bluebloods in the sport (like maybe a UConn), very few will have records that can hold a candle to FGCU.

The school only added women’s basketball in the 21st century and has only had one head coach in their entire existence – Karl Smesko. They have been playing in Division I and in the Atlantic Sun conference now for less than 15 years. And yet, in that time, their record is quite impressive.

After making the Division II Sweet 16 in 2006, and then becoming the national runner–up in 2007, they’ve made the Division I NCAA tournament in 10 of the past 12 years it was held, missing out only in 2013 and 2016, and winning their conference tournament in each of those years. And going into this tournament, they'd won their opening NCAA game two seasons in a row, including upsetting Pac-12 conference tournament champion Washington State in the first round the previous season (though they are yet to advance past the round of 32).

Still, because this group has become quite the team, this tournament has also become quite the “showcase”. Winners in past years include some of the truly elite teams of women’s college basketball, including Baylor, Notre Dame, Texas, Iowa State, Michigan, UConn and Stanford - and now IOWA.

Even against that kind of competition, FGCU has been a nasty host - if you end up having to face them – and they showed their mettle in this tournament by finishing 3rd, defeating the Lexi Donarski–led North Carolina team in the 3rd–place game. And yet, Iowa utterly vanquished FGCU on their way to the finals against Kansas State, 100–62.

Once into the championship, in one of only two games where Iowa played before less than a sellout crowd all season (the other being their opening round game in this tournament), Caitlin Clark finally had a decent game (she’d made only two “3’s” in each of Iowa’s two losses to K–State), and Kate Martin added a double–double with Molly Davis having another great floor game to finally dispatch the Wildcats and take a coveted early–season tournament trophy for the first time.
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19TH: IOWA 80 #8 Virginia Tech 762023–’24 Season Ally Tip–off game in Charlotte, North Carolina.

This game proves that success not only breeds imitation, it breeds all kinds of things never before thought possible (more on that later). OK, this was the inaugural event by this name. But because it involved someone named Caitlin Clark, the game, held at the Spectrum Centre in Charlotte was a sellout, drawing over 15,000 fans, and attracting an almost unheard of number of people watching women's college basketball on TV for so early in the season – nearly 550,000.

It also gave Hawkeye fans their first real glimpse of what this particular year’s team was going to be like. Oh yes, there had been the wildly successful Crossover at Kinnick – an outdoor exhibition against (what turned out to be a really poor team,) DePaul. They had also played a second exhibition game and one that counted, neither of which were even slightly competitive – or in any way indicative as to how good this team was going to be.

Now admittedly, that is true with every team going into a new season. And that would have to include Iowa’s opponent on this night, Virginia Tech – a team that, like Iowa, had advanced to the Final Four the previous year, and in fact had been leading LSU after three quarters in that game before fading late to the Tigers in the first semifinal game.

But everyone knew the Hokies were every bit as talented as they had been the previous year. And over the course of the season, they proved it. They beat one the nation’s top teams, North Carolina State, twice later in the season, including at Raleigh when the Wolfpack was rated #2 in the country. The previous season, pretty much that same N.C. State team had come into Iowa City and had dismantled the Hawkeyes in the last year of the Big Ten–ACC challenge.

This VT team had two players that had to get the attention of the Hawk women – guard Georgia Amoore and center Elizabeth Kitley. Indeed, they showed their talent, as Kitley had 16 points and 16 rebounds, while Amoore led Virginia Tech with 31 points. They also got good bench contributions from Carleigh Wenzel (11 points) and Olivia Summiel (10 rebounds).

But even though Iowa had to hold on for dear life near the end of the game, they once again used a dominant 2nd half to put away the Hokies, 80–76. Those that tuned in on ESPN2 to see Caitlin Clark were not disappointed (despite the late start), as she burned the baskets for 44 points, adding 8 rebounds and 6 assists. The Hawkeyes used their fast break to a stunning 21–0 advantage, and for once, limited their turnovers – 12 compared to VT’s 19.

But even when they had to go into their half–court sets, they outscored VT in the paint, 42–20. Hannah Stuelke pitched in with 12 points before fouling out, Kate Martin added 10 and Kylie Feuerbach – the ONLY other Hawk woman to make a “3” that night, added 8. Also that night, Hawk fans were introduced to a young lady who, up until then, had played comparatively little, and had done even less to make an impression on them, Sydney Affolter, who grabbed an amazing 14 rebounds, and began the path that made her a critical part of what turned out to be another really good team.

Several footnotes to this game. One was the sad ending for VT that season, as they lost Elizabeth Kitley to a season–ending knee injury in the last game of the regular season. But, just so you will know, this “tip–off” game was so successful, they are going to reprise it again on November 10th of this coming year, as well as adding a second game (South Carolina vs. North Carolina State). And by the way, when Iowa does play VT, they will also face the Hokies new head coach, former Hawkeye Cara Consuegra (how about that??).

The last footnote is a deeply personal one to this author, in that this game took place on my Mom’s birthday, her final one in this world. She was hospitalized that night, and I spent the evening with her, though I left before the game started. But she made sure I had the hospital room TV tuned to the right station. And lest one thought her memory issues (which had been a problem) had become crippling, the next morning, she could recount to every nurse the game, the final score and how many points Caitlin Clark scored. Not bad for someone who spent her life having almost ZERO interest in any sports.
18TH: IOWA 89 Colorado 68 – NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game, 2024.

While Hawkeye fans had learned never to take anything for granted, especially when it came to NCAA tournament games, this was one game where they must’ve been really curious in terms of what they would actually see on this late March Saturday afternoon. While the Hawkeye women had indeed returned to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, their previous three games had been, at best, uneven. After dominating on Sr. day, and in the first two rounds of the Big Ten conference tournament, those next three became a real struggle.

Even though they should have had motivation in the Big Ten Conference tournament final against a Nebraska team that beat them in Lincoln and was now playing their fourth game in four days, Iowa was extremely fortunate to get the game to overtime, and even then only pulled it out in the final minute (much more on that game later). Then came their two NCAA games at C.H.A. and, while they did win both games, struggled in different ways against both teams, at least in part due to the perception (probably accurate) that both opponents had been significantly under–seeded.

And honestly, no Iowa fan had forgotten the Sweet 16 game against Colorado the previous year (more on that VERY soon). And with a solid lineup returning that included a lot of size and graduate students, at least on paper, this had the makings of what should’ve been a really close game – maybe one of Iowa’s toughest games in the 2024 NCAA tournament.

Instead, the Buffaloes never knew what hit them. Don’t forget – Colorado was just one team in a regional that had been designated as “murderer’s row”, because there were so many elite teams crowded into it (we found out why later). And as proof, the two games they won to bring them to this game were against pesky Drake (against whom we barely survived in Des Moines the previous season) and the same Kansas State team that had beaten us early in the season in C.H.A. and had won two of the three games we played against them in a 12–month span.

But even if Colorado had focused on preparing for Iowa, the Hawkeye women clearly had a plan to counter some of the challenges they had faced in the previous year’s game, resulting in a 21–point blowout. Four Iowa women outscored Colorado’s leading scorer that night, while holding the Buff’s two top scorers to a combined 14 points. Caitlin Clark had a mind–blowing 15 assists in that game, and the Hawkeye women shot 61% in the first half. And in a statistic that, for a good number of Hawk fans, they are only now starting to notice (looking back), Iowa outrebounded Colorado (43–34) to become the ninth consecutive team they outrebounded.

If anyone needed convincing how good this year's IOWA team was, especially compared to the 2022-'23 national runner-up, this game gave some indication. OK, Colorado only finished in a tie for 5th in the Pac-12's final season, and didn't get past the quarterfinals in the conference tournament, losing to a suddenly very good Oregon State team.

But when you look at the final regular season rankings of several Pac-12 teams, you realize how good Colorado had to be just to accomplish what they did (USC - 5th; Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA - 8th, 9th and 10th), finishing the season rated 15th. But Iowa was clearly better - on that night and overall.
17TH: IOWA 87 Colorado 77 – NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, 2023.

When you recall that the first weekend of games in the NCAA women’s tournament are held in the arenas of the top four seeds of each regional, it was remarkable how many upsets there were that first weekend, spurred by the upset of the #1 seed in Iowa’s region, Stanford, who was upset by Ole Miss in a low–scoring game.

But maybe we should not have been, as just one year earlier, #3–seed Iowa was the victim, losing to #10–seed Creighton in C.H.A. Then in the Sweet 16, that same Creighton team took down #2 Iowa State. So you know nothing is guaranteed. But this year, the #2–seeded Hawks survived.

And because they survived, suddenly the only teams left on their way to the Final Four were much lower seeded teams, as not only did #1 go down, but so did #3 (Duke) and #4 (Texas), all in their home arenas. Which meant that suddenly Iowa was both favored and expected to be the team in their regional to get to the Final Four. With that on their shoulders, how would they respond?

The answer was to keep playing “IOWA” basketball. And with what they had been subjected to, especially in the last month, that is exactly what they would need to do, beginning with this game against the Buffaloes.

Whether or not you have followed this Colorado squad, either in their Big 12 years or in their Pac 12 years, this ladies team has actually been quite impressive through the years. From 1988–2004, the Buffaloes appeared in the NCAA tournament 12 times, reaching the round of 32 three times, the Sweet 16 three times and the Elite Eight three times under their 20–year Hall–of–Fame coach, Ceal Barry.

But after she moved into the A.D.’s office in Boulder, Colorado almost totally disappeared from the women’s scene – that is until they hired current coach J.R. Payne in 2016. She completely recreated the culture in Buffalo basketball, and in reasonably short order had them competitive again, getting better each year through the year just completed. And to get to this game, they had just gone into Durham, North Carolina and beaten an outstanding Duke squad, a team that, for the first time in almost 45 years, had come in with a better record than their renowned men’s team. And at least for this season, on this night, they were the final Pac-12 team standing after losses by Utah (to LSU) and UCLA (to South Carolina).

The game itself was entertaining and quickly showed two extremely well–coached teams. Following a hot Iowa start, the game settled into what almost looked like a game of H-O-R-S-E between Caitlin Clark and Colorado’s Frida Formann. But after going into the half with a one–point deficit, the Hawkeye women followed a script that got them through several of their tough games through this two–year period, exploding in the 3rd quarter, outscoring the Buffaloes 25–13, and holding Formann to just two 2nd–half points. Caitlin Clark led four Hawkeyes in double figures with 31 points and 8 assists. The Hawkeyes dominated at the free throw line, making more free throws (19) then Colorado attempted. As a result, for the second time in four years, the Hawk women were in the Elite Eight.

As a postscript, it was only appropriate that Iowa and Colorado would meet again the following season, again in the Sweet 16. Colorado’s personnel was essentially unchanged, and although Iowa had lost two starters, they also played pretty much the same personnel against the Buffaloes, winning both games.
13TH: IOWA 74 Georgia 66 – NCAA Tournament Round of 32, 2023.

Going into this 2nd–round game in Iowa City, the last thing both Hawk fans and the women themselves were expecting was a(nother) really difficult game. There was no reason to believe that this team had not learned their lesson from the previous season, when their opponent ended up being the #10–seed rather than the #7–seed, and then the surprisingly unprepared #2–seed Hawk women were stunned by Creighton, with the dagger ‘3’ coming from former Hawkeye player Lauren Jensen, the daughter of (now new head) Iowa coach, Jan Jensen.

The women spent both the off–season and then the season itself setting out with a plan that included everything from getting stronger to learning how to manage the many complicated defensive schemes and physicality that they knew they would face throughout this tournament. Yet, this was still the NCAA tournament, a one–and–done affair, where teams will do whatever they need to in terms of securing a victory, especially in an opposing arena.

And especially when it came to facing teams from the SEC – teams that had to spend their Winter weeks going up against the two juggernauts of that season – undefeated South Carolina, and an LSU team whose coach had just come over from Baylor where she had won two national championships – nothing was going to be easy, regardless of their seed.

That was what faced Iowa in the form of the Georgia Bulldogs. Even though the ladies from Athens, GA had only finished 5th in their conference, and didn’t have a single “eye–popping upset”, they had gone to both LSU and South Carolina, losing both road games in excruciating fashion in OT. And their focus on defense made them a dangerous team.

So on this Sunday afternoon in mid–March, even though Iowa was able to build a 10–point lead early in the 2nd qtr., they couldn’t hold it. And even though their shooting remained near 50% for the 1st half, the Hawk women found themselves once again getting both outhustled and outmuscled by a Georgia team who employed varying defenses and an effective seven–player rotation, even after one of their starters got injured early on in this game and played very little. And it was most obvious on the boards, as the Hawkeye women got outrebounded 42–29.

The game was at 58–54 after three quarters when it started looking remarkably like the Creighton game from the year before. Suddenly, Georgia, whose shooting had been a tad over 40% in the first three quarters started making their shots while Iowa went cold, going only 4–13 in the 4th qtr. With a minute to play, it was just a two–point game, just like the previous season. But this time, Iowa survived, and did so by making all their free throws down the stretch, including 6–6 by Caitlin Clark and also a pair of FT’s from Gabbie Marshall, who had been roughed up on the first of two nasty intentional fouls by a team that was being forced to face the fact that they were about to lose.

But the Hawkeye women did win – and because of what they learned from this, their final home game for the 2022-'23 season, it would be the national finals before they would face the prospect of losing again. The only other really negative thing that came from this game was Iowa’s lack of any meaningful depth being exposed. Hannah Stuelke did not play at all, and the combination of Sydney Affolter, Molly Davis and Addison O’Grady played less than 9 minutes combined, making no statistical contributions.
12TH: IOWA 104 #6 Michigan 80 – Sr. Day, 2022.

Ordinarily, you would never expect “Senior Day” games to be in the “best–ever” games in an era. Usually, they are just feel–good home games you expect to win. And considering the schedule is prepared months beforehand, you cannot know what the implications of that final regular–season game are going to be until it is at hand. The previous season, Iowa hadn’t had much of a Senior day, as there were virtually no Seniors to honor except for some managers and people like that. And the game, both the opponent and quality of play, fell short of “legendary”.

But that was the only time. It is unbelievable the kinds of games, opponents and implications that met the last three Senior days in the Caitlin Clark era. It’s almost as though someone knew how everything was going to stack up by season’s end and put Iowa into the most perfect and critical Senior Day match–ups imaginable. And as was said before, it happened three different times – all three of Clark’s final years.

This first game had as many regular–season implications as any of the three. Because of some COVID–induced scheduling quirks, the winner of this game against Michigan would either share the regular–season crown or win it outright. There were five really good teams competing for the top spot for the year – and that critical #1 seed in the upcoming conference tournament. Going into that final day, Maryland and Michigan had each played one fewer game than the other teams, both having games postponed vs. Illinois – one due to COVID, the other due to weather. Because both teams needed to try to make up a game against the same team, postponements turned into cancellations. And that was as much of a factor for the final results as anything was.

And they weren’t the only one(s). As mentioned, Illinois, even though they finished last in the conference that year, ended up playing the fewest conference games of anyone. And Indiana, was amongst a group of teams that played TWO fewer games than the full regularly–scheduled number (of 18). As it ended up, only half of the B1G women’s programs ended up playing their full–specified conference schedule, including Iowa.

Meanwhile, you also had Ohio State, along with the Terrapins and Wolverines, fighting for that top spot along with the Hawks, Indiana, and to a lesser extent, Nebraska. In fact, all these teams were fighting for more than that, since only four teams can get the “double bye” in the Big Ten Conference tournament. Which meant that two of the better teams the Big Ten had seen recently would be forced to play one of the dreaded “Thursday games” in the B.T.T. And although a smattering of teams have come close, no women’s team, in the history of that tournament, has ever been able to pull off winning four games in four days to take the title (though a recent one came REALLY close). So this was critical.

Barely eleven days before this game, it was looking to be Indiana’s race to lose. Their only loss had been at Michigan (along with three non–conference losses to top–5 teams). And with very few common scheduling slots and open venues available, Indiana only had to make up three games – a home game against Michigan State (which they won), and the home–and–home against Iowa, the first of which would end up being the Hoosiers’ Senior Day.

Alas, Indiana not only lost both games of the home–and–home to Iowa, but also lost late road games at Nebraska and Maryland. The only reason they finished as high as 5th was that their 16–game schedule allowed them to finish 11–5 while Nebraska finished 6th at 11–7. And speaking of Maryland, while they were both talented and dangerous that season, and had a nice closing stretch in the conference, they lost both of their conference games to Michigan, getting drubbed by 20 points at College Station for their only home loss all season (back in January). Meanwhile, Ohio State suffered the same fate as Maryland, losing both conference games to Michigan, and losing at Maryland’s Senior Day.

So it appeared to be “advantage Michigan” going into this game. The Wolverines had been quite good most of the season – even though they needed OT to beat the same IUPUI team that had shocked Iowa in Carver–Hawkeye arena the season before.

And along with the already–mentioned wins, Michigan had also taken down mighty Baylor in a pre–Christmas Hall of Fame women’s showcase, their first–ever win over a top–5 team. So Michigan seemed to be headed for a downright legendary season, that was only stopped by two things. One was the two teams that seemed to be their kryptonite – Nebraska and Louisville. The other was the Wolverines losing a pair of real head–scratchers in mid–February, getting shocked at both Michigan State and Northwestern three days apart. THAT opened up the door for Iowa on this day.

Meanwhile, the Hawk women were still in this race because they had avoided some of the upsets of the other teams. OK, they did lose at home to Northwestern, as well as to Ohio State, and predictably lost at Maryland and the earlier game in Ann Arbor. But they gutted out a win in Evanston in overtime, and won in a trio of other road venues that gave other teams trouble – specifically at Nebraska, Rutgers and the afore–mentioned Indiana.

Bottom line? If Michigan, behind Naz Hillman and her teammates, won, the title would be theirs alone, at 14–3, ½–game ahead of Ohio State, with Maryland 3rd and Iowa given 4th. But if Iowa could find a way to beat this talented team coached by Kim Barnes Arico (who had just been given a contract extension), they would share the regular–season championship with Ohio State at 14–4, and would end up with what turned out to be their only one in the Caitlin Clark era, even though they would still be given the #2 seed in the conference tournament.

This definitely brought out the best in Iowa. Although they trailed after the 1st quarter, got outrebounded for the game, fought foul trouble with their “bigs” throughout the game, and as a result gave up a Clark–era high of 34 FT attempts (with the Wolverines making 25), EVERYTHING else went right for the Hawk women. Their advantage in fast–break points was an astounding 31–2. They shot 58.7% from the field for the game, outscoring Michigan 33–14 in the 2nd qtr. alone. For once, they even got a good effort off their bench, with four different women combining for 20 points. And with Caitlin Clark doing what would become “her usual thing” with 38 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 steals, the game was a blowout.

As mentioned before, this was Iowa’s only regular–season championship in the Clark era, even if they had to share it with another team. The other two seasons would have scheduling anomalies that would not work in the Hawkeyes favor. Still, with what followed these Sr. Day games, Iowa had no problem establishing themselves as the conference’s best team – three straight years.

One more postscript that you will see being made mention of for the other “Sr. Day” games. One of the reasons you would not expect these games to get rated so high in the Top 25 is that you’d expect a rematch in the conference tournament, which should be a far better indicator of who is the top team. But this season, just like the other two, the other top teams were nowhere to be found to “get back” at Iowa. This Michigan team, now relegated to a #3–seed, couldn’t get out of the quarterfinals, losing for a second time to Nebraska. #4–seeded Maryland suffered the same fate in the “quarters” against Indiana. And top–seeded Ohio State went down in the semis, also to Nebraska. Which left Iowa to have to beat a #7, #6, and #5 to win the tournament.

That said, this is the only year when those other teams advanced farther in the NCAA tournament than Iowa did. Ohio State, Nebraska, Maryland and Michigan all won their mini–regionals. All except Michigan lost in the Sweet 16. Michigan fell in the Elite Eight, again for the second time, to a Louisville team that would be back in that round the next season.
11TH: IOWA 93 #2 Ohio State 83 – Sr. Day, 2024.

No matter what this game was called, who the opponent was, or how many were watching, this game – in fact, this entire day was about the incredible popularity of Caitlin Clark and the entire Iowa team, as she played her final conference game in Carver–Hawkeye arena. This Sunday in early March started with a visit by ESPN Gameday – even though that would not be the network broadcasting the game.

That privilege fell to FOX, which may have been a late–comer in terms of realizing the newfound popularity of women’s college basketball (often shuffling games like these to FS1), but now finally “getting it” to the point where they sent their true “A–team” – announcer Gus Johnson and color specialist Sarah Kustok to Iowa City for the broadcast.

And just like the previous two years, it “just so happened” that Iowa’s Sr. Day opponent was going to be a doozy – with the Hawkeyes facing an Ohio State team that had already defeated them in Columbus (in OT), and had already clinched the regular season championship and hence the conference tournament’s #1 seed. They were also rated #2 in the country and came into Iowa City riding a 15–game winning streak.

Unlike the previous season, Ohio State didn’t have nearly as much competition huddled around them in the standings. Several teams that had been good anywhere from several seasons (Michigan comes to mind) to a couple of decades (Maryland comes to mind) this time had down years – both of those teams finished right at .500 in the conference that season.

That’s not to say the conference was having a down year. OK, it may not have been at the elite level of the previous season, where they had the nation’s overall #2 seed, two other teams that got to the Elite Eight and one that went all the way to the national championship game, the first Big Ten team to be in at least the Final Four since 2014 and '15, when conference newbie Maryland went in back–to–back years.

Still, these were the two best teams in the Big Ten. But when it was over, Ohio State may have had the trophy for the regular season, but once again, it was Iowa that made the strongest case for the league’s best for the third consecutive year. Caitlin Clark set the new all-time record for points scored in NCAA history, men or women, when she passed up Pete Maravich with two technical free throws late in the 1st half on the way to scoring 35 points that day – the 55th time she scored 30+ points in a game in her career. And despite the game getting close a few times, Iowa led this game wire–to–wire after the first two minutes.

The list of her career accomplishments, while still not yet finished, were impressive, both individually and what she led the team to. Clark became the first Division–I men’s or women’s player to record 3,600+ points, 1,000+ assists, and 850+ rebounds in a career. It was Clark’s 18th game with 30+ points that year which ranked first nationally – and over the last 25 seasons, no one had recorded more 30+ point performances than Clark (55).

But basketball is never a one–person game, no matter how good she is. Indeed, Hannah Stuelke chipped in with 23 points and 9 rebounds in this game. Fellow Seniors Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin ended up in double figures, with Martin adding nine more rebounds. Kylie Feuerbach had 4 of Iowa’s 11 steals that game, with Marshall adding two more.

Unfortunately, the joy of the day was tempered severely by what turned out to be a season–ending knee injury to fellow Senior Molly Davis in the 2nd quarter as she went for a steal. And while the loss was devastating, gratefully, one of the good things that came from that was to push the conference’s co–6th–player–of–the–year, Sydney Affolter, into the starting lineup for the rest of the season, where she became a critical cog leading the team back to the national championship. "Syd" was Iowa’s 2nd–straight recipient of that award following Hannah Stuelke, who won it the previous year. But Iowa’s depth took a HUGE hit from that injury, especially since Davis had been able to take a lot of the ball–handling responsibility off of Caitlin Clark.

OK, Iowa failed to win at least a portion of the regular season championship for the 2nd consecutive year. And in the Caitlin Clark era, they never did receive the #1 seed in the Big Ten Conference Tournament. But games like this showed that those numbers were just that – meaningless numbers. And when you go back through all the team's schedules, you see that it was Iowa in both ‘23 and ‘24 that ended up playing all the top teams both home–and–away, while the eventual #1 seed was able to escape a key road game at one of the other top teams (Indiana not having to play at Maryland in 2023, Ohio State not having to play at Indiana in 2024).

But this helped explain why, three years in a row, the #1 seed was nowhere to be found by the afternoon of the championship game of the Big Ten Conference tournament – and often also after the 1st weekend of the NCAA tournament. Indeed, after this loss, Ohio State was blown out in their opening game of the Big Ten Conference tournament by Maryland, then failed to get out of their own NCAA regional, losing by 12 to Duke in the 2nd round.
10TH: IOWA 74 Indiana 67 – Big Ten Conference Tournament final, 2022.

Call the author of these one who remains confused over the importance given to the basketball conference tournaments. You can do battle in your conference during the regular season for two solid months, playing two and three games a week amidst road trips, term papers and bad weather – and that is following two more months of non–conference games, which more and more are getting to be challenging, just so you can have a good “strength of schedule”.

But anymore, the most that does is to get you a higher seed in the conference tournament. And now, as of this past season, mid–major teams that win their regular season but fail in their conference tournament aren’t even guaranteed a spot in the B.I.T. (formerly N.I.T.) anymore, let alone the NCAA.

But since that’s the way it is, teams that want national recognition have to focus on winning their conference tournament – even though winning them has had little bearing on how you might do even if it does get you into the NCAA tournament. That is where Iowa stood in 2022.

Oh, and one more thing these tournaments are famous for is a long string of upsets of higher seeds. That only makes sense since lower–seeded teams that are “on the bubble” (or worse) have so much more to play for than a team that is already safely in the NCAA tournament. Even if you had a disappointing season, you can blow past the conference’s top teams in one good weekend and take the one spot that guarantees it will be your name called on “selection Sunday”. How typical the Big Ten is in that regard versus other conferences, I can’t be sure.

But in 29 years of the Big Ten Conference women’s basketball tournament, the regular season champion has only won it 13 times, with the runner–up winning it five other times. And to be honest, many of those regular-season champion wins have come in the last 10–15 years.

There is no greater of a demonstration for how that works than to look at the history of the Iowa basketball women. Especially in the early years, Iowa teams actually won the Big Ten regular season a time or two. A few times they also won the conference tournament. But never had those taken place in the same year. Which makes the 2022 tournament an anomaly, since this was the first time Iowa actually accomplished both – and the only time in the Caitlin Clark era.

One thing has to be said about these conference tournaments. Unless you are talking about a year such as the COVID year, which wiped out the postseason in 2020, but not until after the women’s conference tournament had ended, there are no asterisks next to the winners of these tournaments. No matter who you had to face or how they were seeded, if you win, you win.

Therefore one would have to say, “So, what?” to any of the Iowa detractors who complained that, in two of the three years where Iowa won the Big Ten Conference Tournament in the Caitlin Clark era, they never had to face a seed higher than ‘5’, including this year’s final’s opponent.

And let’s not forget, Iowa was the main reason Indiana came in as a ‘5’–seed into this game, having lost to the Hawkeyes twice in a late–season home–and–home. On their way up, the #2–seeded Hawk women had first defeated the #7–seed, Northwestern, then 6th–seeded Nebraska, who had upset third–seeded Michigan. And now, they faced a still–dangerous Indiana team who had just knocked off the #1–seed, Ohio State, and was looking to avenge the two earlier losses to the Hawk women in the friendly tournament venue in downtown Indianapolis.

But since Indiana came in as a ‘5’–seed, this meant they were playing their fourth game in four days, and it showed, especially since they ran mostly a 6–woman rotation. The Hoosiers got nothing from their bench and shot only 37% from the field for the game. That said, Iowa was only marginally better, getting only four points out of their bench players. Indiana actually had more “3’s” in this game (4) than did Iowa (2). And after a close first half, Indiana came out hot in the 3rd quarter to take a 6–point lead. But from then on it was all Iowa.

For once, Caitlin Clark, while she had dominated the first two games, and was named the tournament MVP, played mostly a secondary role in this game, shooting only 6–17 and making only one “3”. Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock also played solid supporting roles, combining for 22 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists, with most of Warnock’s statistics coming in the key 2nd half. But this game belonged to Monika Czinano. In fact, it was from this game that the term, “law firm of Clark–Czinano” got its start. Czinano would score 30 points on 13–18 shooting. She turned it into a double–double with 10 rebounds, and made the all–tournament team.

Sadly, Iowa’s capturing of a regular–season trophy AND the Big Ten conference tournament championship ended with a “thud”, as Iowa lost in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament to Creighton. But all that did was strengthen their resolve in Clark’s remaining two years.
9TH: IOWA 105 Ohio State 73 – Big Ten Conference Tournament final, 2023.

No matter how well the Big Ten has stacked up against the rest of the nation’s teams in women’s college basketball through the years, the conference has been able to field some seriously good teams, a few of whom have put together some impressive multi–year runs.

Perhaps most dominant was Purdue who, from 1996–2013, won the conference tournament an amazing nine times, and finished runner–up in five other years. There was also Maryland who, shortly after joining the Big Ten, in a seven–year stretch from 2015–2021, won the tournament five times and was runner–up the other two. And Ohio State won four titles and one runner–up in six years from 2006–2011.

In the first 24 years of this tournament, Iowa was probably in the 2nd tier of teams, popping up to cause some trouble every once in awhile, with a pair of firsts and a pair of seconds, but probably not listed among the elite programs that you had to fear, year–in and year–out.

All of that changed starting in 2019, as Megan Gustafson led Iowa to an elite status they had not previously known in the Lisa Bluder era, winning the tournament and sending the Hawk women to the Elite Eight. And that was only the beginning. Now, after the 2024 season, the ladies from Iowa City have matched the run of Ohio State with four titles of their own and one runner–up in six years.

The curious thing is, no matter how dynastic each of these teams were, none of them have ever won the conference tournament in more than three consecutive years. And even that feat was only accomplished once by each of the above–listed teams. Yes, being the top team has proven to be quite difficult for squads that have to build an all–new roster every 3–5 years.

But since the “three–peat” is the Big Ten’s high–water mark, it is just as fascinating to see how each of those teams won their three straight championships. When I researched this, I expected to see some absolute blow–outs in one of those runs. While there have been some through the years with teams winning by margins between 10–20 points, almost never did they happen during the “three–peats”. The closest was Maryland’s run, although their two other championship wins were far more lopsided affairs. Meanwhile, two of Purdue’s three were by single–digits, while Ohio State won two of their three by a combined three points.

Bottom line? There isn’t a single school that won in the midst of a three–peat in as convincing and as dominating a fashion as Iowa did in this game. The Hawkeyes had learned that they needed to be at their best in this game, suffering what had previously been the worst–ever loss in the B.T.T. just two years ago, to Maryland, by 20 points. But even that game couldn’t hold a candle to this blow–out affair – especially for how quickly it became that.

Ohio State had pulled an absolute shocker in the semi–finals to get into this game, trailing by 24 late in the 2nd quarter, and by 20 at the half, but coming back to take down the #1 seed (and the team that would be given the overall #2 seed in the NCAA tournament), Indiana, 79–75. In that game, they used their full–court press to perfection in the 2nd half, exposing Indiana’s lack of a true point guard, and forcing the Hoosiers into 18 turnovers (vs. 8 for tOSU) and a dreadful shooting percentage of 27.6% for the half to mount the largest comeback in B.T.T. history.

But, having to play their third game in three days, and against an Iowa team that loved to go up–tempo, and who had already proven earlier in the season that they could break the Buckeye press, the Hawk women came out in this game in overdrive while Ohio State played like they were still looking for a crank to hand–start their team that had all the looks of a worn–out tractor.

The contrast could not be more stark – Ohio State shot 25% for the entire first half, while Iowa was near 75%, including over 83% for the 1st quarter. After a close first four minutes, the Hawkeye women closed with a dominating 20–2 run, then followed that up by outscoring the Buckeye women by 20 in the 2nd quarter. The halftime score looked more like a pre–season scrimmage against one of the “sisters of the poor” – Iowa 61, Ohio State 24.

The fact that tOSU managed nearly 50 points in the 2nd half mattered not at all as Iowa, with a balanced attack, kept the Buckeyes at bay, even outscoring them again in the 4th quarter. The law firm of Clark–Czinano combined for 56 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists (all of those by Clark). McKenna Warnock, who was really starting to distinguish herself by getting clutch rebounds, grabbed 11 in this game. And although Gabbie Marshall scored only 9 points this time around, her tournament–wide effort had been so dominating she made the all–tournament team along with MVP Clark.

Who knows – maybe this game should’ve been rated higher. In the author’s estimation, it just wasn’t enough of a game to rate higher (as the ones rated above this will show). And as tough and competitive as the Big Ten is, we may never again see another game so one–sided in the tournament finals. But the fact that it was Iowa that could do this to a team that eventually took down UConn on their way to a trip to the Elite Eight that Spring showed just how good they had gotten to be.
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8TH: IOWA 89 #5 Maryland 84 – Big Ten Conference Tournament Semifinal, 2023.

By the time you get to this spot on the list, most of the time, you would expect the game to have some kind of special significance, be it a trophy game, or something that makes it stand out from other games – that is, most of the time. But this game is on the list because it was one of THE finest games played by the Iowa women, a game in which both teams brought their ‘A+’ game, and put on a show that was as entertaining as any you will ever see.

To begin with, this was the highest–seeded team the Hawkeye women would face in three years of the Big Ten Conference tournament – and the Terrapins played like it. Truth be told, we should not have expected anything less. Even though neither team won the regular–season crown (for the most part because champion Indiana did not have to play a conference game at Maryland), the teams were among the elite, not just in the Big Ten, but also nationally that year, as they would show once they both got into the NCAA tournament.

But on this late Saturday afternoon at the Target Center in Minneapolis, both teams went into the game processing the shock of hearing that #1–seed Indiana had blown a 24–point lead, losing to Ohio State, and that it would be the Buckeyes that would play the winner of this game.

And the results of the two regular–season games gave one the impression that this game would indeed be a real “donnybrook”. In early February, Maryland visited Iowa and suffered their first loss of 2024, getting beaten soundly in C.H.A., 90–76. Then just 11 days before this game, the Terrapins returned the favor by waxing the Hawk women in a completely lopsided contest, 96–68. The final score of that game was probably the biggest factor as to why the eventual conference tournament champion was denied a #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

Now if records mean anything, these two teams could not have been more equal. Iowa’s win in this game left the teams with identical records of 15–3 in the conference and 25–6 overall. Both teams would receive #2 seeds into the NCAA tournament, and get at least as far as the Elite Eight.

And considering Maryland was still not far from having won five conference titles in seven years, their line–up, even without Angel Reese (who had transferred) and with Senior starter Faith Masonius in a heavy knee brace recuperating from an injury earlier in the season, was absolutely loaded both with a number of veteran Seniors but also with a couple of key newcomers. Senior Diamond Miller was a unanimous 1st–team all–Big–Ten selection, and fellow Sr. Abby Myers was on the 2nd team. Then there was a young sophomore named Shyanne Sellers who made both 2nd team all–B1G and also was on the all–conference defensive team.

If you have not seen a replay of this game, you need to go to YouTube and watch it – it is worth your time (in fact ALL games on this list, except maybe the loss to IUPUI can be found on YouTube, most of them both in truncated and full-game broadcasts). It was highly entertaining, filled with many good plays, hot shooting and precise execution. That said, Iowa led almost the entire game, though Maryland kept fighting back time and again to make the scroe close. Down the stretch, it actually looked like they were going to overtake the Hawk women and win the game. And another day they may have … except.

The level of the play of all five Hawkeye starters remained as good as you will ever see, especially against a team so well–rounded talent–wise and on a neutral court. The Hawks got out quickly behind a hot Caitlin Clark and led 21–9 six minutes in. And although the Terrapins would whittle that down a bit to 26–18 at the end of the quarter, looking back at game's end, it was this fantastic Iowa start that both set the tone, and ultimately decided who won.

Because of the importance of this game, it was also extremely physical. Indeed, three key players (Diamond Miller and Shyanne Sellers for Maryland and Kate Martin for Iowa) spent some moments being taken back to the locker room for some “trainer’s time”, though all three returned and were effective. The teams also combined for 40 fouls, which was especially a problem for Iowa, as once again, they got essentially nothing in terms of contributions from their bench players. Lisa Bluder had to manage the minutes and fouls of Monika Czinano and (especially) Kate Martin, so they could all be there at the end.

And speaking of that end, the 4th quarter was everything you could ever ask it to be – unless you are a Terrapins fan (of which there were very few in the place that has come to be known as “Carver North”). That said, Iowa was having to rely on their other players, since Caitlin Clark cooled off massively after her hot start – at one point she was an almost unheard of 2–5 from the free throw line. But the other players did indeed come through – from both teams.

Yes, that includes Maryland, who committed three unforced turnovers, all at critical times when the Terrapins looked like they were on the verge of shifting the game into their favor. Considering each team only had 12 turnovers for the entire game (another testament to two good teams playing an incredibly efficient game), those helped keep the scales tipped to Iowa.

But that wasn’t all. All five Iowa starters were in double figures and had specific moments where they made some key plays down the stretch – none bigger than a combination maybe far less infamous, but just as critical in this game’s final moments – Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock. Marshall, who had spent much of the season struggling with her shooting, had already canned six “3’s” (most in the 1st half), and was all over the floor with Iowa’s confusing and constantly changing defenses. Warnock, meanwhile, got hot in the 2nd half, scoring the first five points, and was up to 17 points, when the play of the game – one of the plays of the YEAR – took place.

Maryland had tied the game at 79 with a little less than two minutes to play. They were guarding Iowa tight, and an attempted cross–court pass from Kate Martin to Gabbie Marshall had almost been stolen, but got knocked out of bounds with the shot clock nearly wound down. Iowa inbounded the ball to Clark, who had no choice but to put up a contested “3”. It missed, but in a moment Hawkeye fans would get to see and appreciate more than once, McKenna Warnock outfought two Maryland players for the rebound, spotted an open Gabbie Marshall on the right wing and got the ball to her. Even though often, with a fresh shot clock, you may wish to reset your offense, Marshall did not hesitate and swished a dagger three, her seventh of the game, giving her a season–high 21 points. Soon thereafter, Marshall added a steal, which helped Iowa hold off the Terrapins.

What a game it was. 75% of Maryland’s made FG’s came off of assists [21–28]. For Iowa, it was 77% [24–31]. McKenna Warnock, following that key rebound, clinched the game with four free throws, giving her the same 21 points as Gabbie Marshall had. And with Clark’s 22, Iowa had had three players with 20 or more points. Add in a near triple–double for Kate Martin (10 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) and 15 points and 8 rebounds from Monika Czinano, and Iowa, behind that raucous crowd, was just a bit better that day.

Two postscripts from that game. One was a sign that got noticed by the announcers during that game, where some fan wrote, “Food at the Target Center – $934; watching Caitlin Clark in the Target Center – priceless.” While the first part was probably annoyingly correct, the fact that Clark and the Iowa women set attendance records that would follow them and just increase the entirety of the next season, shows just what was starting to become one amazing phenomenon.

Finally, if one assumes Iowa and Maryland were a case of equals (after the game, Terrapins head coach Brenda Frese, who went to high school at Cedar Rapids Washington, commented that she still felt her girls were the better team, but couldn’t come through in what was essentially a road environment), it gave the appearance that Iowa might be able to get as far as top–rated South Carolina, but definitely no farther. In two games that season – the 2nd game of the regular season, and again in the Elite Eight – South Carolina handily mastered Maryland.

Even in the game that would send the winner to the Final Four – and an eventual matchup with some team named Iowa, South Carolina, despite missing 10 free throws in that game, and having to face Diamond Miller (who was injured in the first meeting and did not play), had little problem with the Terrapins. In the two games, the Gamecocks crushed Maryland on the boards to a combined 93–46. If that was the best Maryland could do, what would happen to Iowa when they got their turn against that juggernaut in the Final Four??

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