Top 25 Games of the Caitlin Clark Era

7TH: IOWA 94 Nebraska 89, OT – Big Ten Conference Tournament final, 2024.

No matter who you are and what you have to face, everyone has to learn that there are limitations in life – often gatherings of events that remind you that you just cannot be all and do all and enjoy all, whether you are by yourself or surrounded by people you are privileged to call “your teammates”. On this Sunday morning, when people out east were just getting to lunch, many in two time zones were still in church, and a lot of those out west were just waking up, the Hawkeyes were grasped by this reality that looked as though it would defeat them.

Don’t get me wrong. The Target Center was jammed to capacity. The line waiting to get into the Target Center to watch this game stretched farther than anyone in the history of the Target Center could ever remember. The sellout crowd of 18,534, even though it was happening in the finals for the second straight year, helped set records no one could’ve imagined even not all that long ago. And the designation of “Carver North” seemed to be as accurate as ever.

And the Hawkeye women had additional motivation. Nebraska was one of the (few) teams that had defeated them that season. Almost exactly one month earlier, Iowa fell to the Cornhuskers 82–79 in Lincoln. Iowa led by 14 points at the end of the 3rd quarter, and for once absolutely melted away under the blistering attack by the women in the white and red. Jaz Shelley hit a “3” with 32 seconds left in the game to cap a closing 7–0 scoring run. At the time, the Hawks were rated #2 – a rating they wouldn’t see again until after this rematch.

As if this weren’t enough, the Cornhuskers, as the tournament’s #5 seed, were playing their fourth game in four days, a phenomenon we've discussed previously. An upset over top–seeded Ohio State the day before landed them in this spot for a chance to win the championship.

Now supposedly, Iowa had faced all of this before, and prevailed, usually handily. And yet, by all accounts, Iowa was outplayed a good part of the game. And from what took place in the 1st, 2nd and 4th quarters, they probably should’ve lost. WHAT HAPPENED?

Remember what this team had been through. It is safe to say that, for the players returning for 2023–’24, they’d had essentially no off–season. After the previous year’s run, a run that took them all the way to the national championship game, while the off–season may have dragged on forever for anxious Hawkeye fans, it was basically non–existent for these women. It started the very first days after the championship run.

Suddenly, no matter what these girls did, they were in the spotlight – not just Caitlin Clark, but ALL of them. They returned to Iowa after that first Final Four to an absolute hero’s welcome – but also to the reality that these young women, who, for whatever else they were, were students, and good ones at that, now had to get back to their class work with a good 2/3rd’s or more of the semester already over. Most winter athletes will get a good 2+ months to catch up – these women barely had one.

AS IF THAT WEREN’T ENOUGH, ESPN, the Big Ten Network, and all the local network sport's departments (and don’t forget – the Hawkeyes have three sets of those – from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids–Waterloo, and the Quad Cities), and others all wanted the opportunity to put together summary specials over the season just concluded. And when you have never been to the top like this before, it is hard to say “no”. Gratefully, if you’ve seen some of them, you would probably agree that they were done extremely well.

AS IF THAT WEREN’T ENOUGH, Caitlin Clark was receiving honor after honor, each one requiring a trip that usually included head coach Lisa Bluder and often one or two teammates for support. And let’s just say the award ceremonies were being held in destinations a little farther away than Swisher or What Cheer. They continued well into the Summer.

AS IF THAT WEREN’T ENOUGH, the Iowa athletic department had long planned a trip for the Iowa women to travel to Italy and Croatia over the Summer. And while they did many things on that trip amongst their sightseeing (like making pizzas in Italy – imagine that!), and served admirably as ambassadors for the university, state, and even country, their primary purpose over there was – more basketball – clinics and games against national teams – even if they were against really poor teams.

AS IF THAT WEREN’T ENOUGH, the athletic department felt obligated to continue a series of basketball camps, both in Iowa City (early in the Summer), and even a couple that were off–campus. One that was added on very short notice in DeWitt, IA after they had returned from overseas, and hosted by Kate Martin, sold out in barely one day and could very easily have had between 600–1,000 young girls, all jumping at the chance to spend time with this team, even if Caitlin Clark was not actually going to be a part of this event.

AS IF THAT WEREN’T ENOUGH, Lisa Bluder and the athletic department came up with an idea to take advantage of the women’s popularity in an exhibition called “Crossover at Kinnick”, that would have them playing in Kinnick Stadium before an Iowa football game outdoors in mid–October. Gratefully, weather–wise, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.

After all that, the season began – and another long one, as now everyone wanted Iowa to be the featured team in special games and gatherings – some of which had existed (if not ignored) for years, and some of which you would think were formed just to have another excuse to put Caitlin Clark on TV. For the first time, EVERY SINGLE GAME except for a couple of games at a Thanksgiving tournament in Florida, were televised. And now every team they faced wanted to be the team that would “take them down”. And every single game - home and away - except two were sell–outs, as even opposing teams’ fans wanted a chance to watch #22 – and opposing coaches wanted to be the ones to beat her.

Now read my first paragraph again. It didn’t help that Iowa was having to reconfigure their team at a horrible time, with Molly Davis now gone for the season – and that reconfiguration ended up being mostly the women having to play with one less person in the rotation. But you add all that together, and even though they'd absolutely cruised in their first two games (against 7th–seed Penn State and 6th–seed Michigan), this game was another matter.

Let’s not sell Nebraska short – this had to be one of the finest–ever performances by a team that should’ve been running on fumes not long after the opening tip. The Cornhuskers made 32 baskets during the game, and had assists on 28 of them – a percentage Iowa had never reached in the Caitlin Clark age – and the perfect elixir to be able to compete neck-and-neck with a Hawkeye team that looked tired and lethargic in comparison.

Indeed, Caitlin Clark had only 4 points in the 1st half as Nebraska quickly jumped out to a 12–point lead, and led Iowa by 11 at the half – the largest deficit faced by the Iowa women's team (in a game that they would eventually win). Then, just like in Lincoln, the Hawks absolutely dominated the 3rd quarter, actually taking a brief lead, and being tied at 58 going into the 4th quarter. At that point, Hawkeye fans had to feel pretty good about their chances.

Instead, the game started looking remarkably like the earlier game in Lincoln – except that, while Iowa had held a big lead in Lincoln and lost it, here the only lead was by 2 with just under 6 minutes to play, when the Cornhuskers started to pull back ahead again. Indeed, things looked virtually hopeless when, with 2½ minutes to play, and Iowa trailing by 8, Caitlin Clark turned over the basketball.

But after Nebraska missed a wide–open “3”, Iowa dominated the final two-plus minutes. A classic step–back “3” on the right wing by Clark, then a classic Clark–zipped pass to Hannah Stuelke for a layup quickly cut it to three. After a Nebbie layup, Clark found Kate Martin wide open in the left corner for another “3” that made it a 2–point game with a minute to play. After another missed Nebraska three, Clark willed her way to the basket for a layup to close the scoring in regulation, tied at 77.

Again, Hawkeye fans probably again felt like this would be the end of what should’ve been a really tired team. And after Iowa quickly scored the first five points of overtime, it almost seemed like the breathing could start being at least a little more relaxed. Again, not this time, as Nebraska scored seven straight points to retake the lead. The game see–sawed after that, with the Cornhuskers still up one with just under a minute to play. But Iowa scored the game’s final six points to prevail, 92–87.

Clark ended up with 34 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds. Kate Martin, who had two other dagger “3’s” in overtime, finished up with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Hannah Stuelke ended up being the main beneficiary of the attention being paid to Caitlin Clark, as she finished up with 25 points and 9 rebounds. Sydney Affolter got another of her “double–doubles” with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Gabbie Marshall only had 6 points, but also had the game’s biggest blocked shot in the final minute of OT. Iowa led for less than five minutes total in regulation but eventually found a way to finish off the “three–peat”.

Bottom line? This Iowa team that I believe so desperately needed a break finally got one, as they would not have to play again for nearly two weeks. And ultimately, it set up so they could be “Hawkeye historic” once again.
6TH: IOWA 82 Iowa State 80Cy–Hawk Series Game in Iowa City, Late Fall of 2020.

A great, great story has to start somewhere. And there is something really appropriate about the Caitlin Clark legend getting its start in a game against cross–state rival Iowa State. While neither of these teams may be perceived nationally as part of the elite of women’s college basketball through the years – certainly not like a Tennessee, Stanford, UConn or Baylor – the fact is both Lisa Bluder and Bill Fennelly had built really solid programs at their respective universities – quite a feat for a state that you would not think could supply near enough quality basketball players for one really good team, let alone two.

And if one didn’t know better, you would think that one of the goals of each these two coaches was to be the best in their state – even before being one of the best in their respective conferences. And even though Bill Fennelly had a five–year head start as coach of the Cyclones (and is the one still coaching his team going into the upcoming season), in the 20 years that they went head–to–head prior to this game, their record against each other was, unsurprisingly, 10–10. Each team beat the other twice in the opposing gym (with ISU winning at Carver in 2000 and 2006 and Iowa winning at Hilton Coliseum in 2017 and 2019). Most of the games were decisive with only one overtime game, ISU holding on in Hilton in 2003 in 2OT.

And how many people, especially outside the state of Iowa, had any idea what this game was going to do or be, especially for the Iowa program and some freshman named Caitlin Clark? Based on the listed attendance of this Wednesday night game, held in December right around the time of final exams, and with COVID restrictions still in place, (a whole 326 “socially–distanced” people), very few.

And through 3 quarters, even though this was only Iowa’s fourth game of the season and ISU’s fifth, it looked like the Cyclones were going to send the Hawks to their first loss, and finally get their heads above .500 for the first time that season. Who knows? Had there been more fans, there might’ve been a mass exodus to the exits, as Iowa trailed 73–56 with only the final 10 minutes to play. But for those who stayed, they got introduced to the young lady out of West Des Moines Dowling high school who picked Iowa over Notre Dame and Iowa State.

And as this Iowa team turned on the rocket boosters big time, they did so with a core line–up that would be essentially unchanged for the next three seasons – Clark, Marshall, Martin, Warnock and Czinano. Even though they had been shooting at least a decent percentage through the first three quarters [46.5%], the Hawkeye women blitzed the fourth quarter nets for 59%, including 6–9 from three–point land to quickly close the gap against ISU.

Meanwhile, the Cyclones, who had been putting on a clinic behind Cedar Rapid’s own Ashley Joens, and a supporting cast that included a young lady now playing for the Hawks, Kylie Feuerbach, suddenly went cold in the decisive 4th quarter. Indeed, after averaging 19 shots per quarter through the first three, they only got off 10 shots in the 4th quarter and made only two.

But one of those two was a banked-in "3" by Joens that put ISU back up 80–79 with time winding down to the final seconds. And even though Iowa had the ball, it looked like the Cyclones had everything and everybody bottled up to pretty well, trying to prevent a final shot. All that was left was for the freshman Clark to try to create something on her own.

And in a move all of us have become accustomed to, she drifted to her left, well out past the three–point line and took her now–patented “step–back three”. Those following Iowa basketball, men or women, could attest that, while they had seen many a player do that against Iowa, they had virtually never seen an Iowa athlete do that to the opponent – until tonight.

This time, the shot hit nothing but cord and Iowa won. And something must’ve gotten the attention of members of the national media – or someone. Because this clip, perhaps because it took place during a somewhat slow sports period, made the national news, and lit up sites like YouTube. Whatever and why, it certainly wouldn’t be the last time Clark would do that.

Even though what would become known as “the law firm” of Clark and Czinano combined for a troubling 12 turnovers that night, they also teamed up to the tune of 50 points – 34 from Clark to counter the 35 from Joens. Clark also had seven rebounds and seven assists. McKenna Warnock, who was a two–time player of the year from the state of Wisconsin, added 14 points and 8 rebounds – the type of numbers where, if she was ever close to that, Iowa virtually never lost.

One last comment. Does this game belong rated this high, especially in light of SO many other great games? Well, there are no wrong answers when putting this list together. But since this really did start what was a true legacy both for a team and a player, while it was moved around several times, I was comfortable letting it land here.
5TH: IOWA 97 Louisville 82 – Elite Eight game, 2023.

This is a day that should’ve dawned with a hope and optimism not seen amongst Hawkeye fans for a long time. The Iowa women were facing a tough but beatable team seeded #5 in the NCAA tournament – Louisville, with the winner headed for the Final Four. And for most of the fans, who would be relegated to watching the game taking place in Seattle, Washington on TV, that is what it was. But to the players and staff getting ready for that game, this day became something different – very different.

As they awoke that Sunday morning, word came out that the father of Hawkeye lead assistant coach (now head coach) Jan Jensen had passed overnight. Suddenly, the place of things like sports games fell back into a proper perspective, and the brutal nature of life that ultimately ends in death reared its head. But in the midst of that, the players and coaches for Iowa also learned, in an even greater fashion than previously, that what they had was not only a team but a family – a very closeknit one at that.

Coach Lisa Bluder was the first into Jan’s hotel room that morning. And there was no talk about strategy, preparations or anything else. They just sat in contemplative silence, with Lisa offering a hand and a hug as needed. Once the NCAA–mandated obligations for the morning drew close and Jan now needed to be with the players, all of them were doing the same thing. For any one of them, this could’ve been their father – or other close relative. And while such bonding can’t take away the pain, it can provide both a solace and a resolve that this day was going to be remembered not for sadness or tragedy, but in triumph.

Off the opening tip, it didn’t seem like it was going to be that way, as Louisville scored the game’s first eight points, ending in a quick timeout by Coach Bluder. Out of the timeout, Caitlin Clark went on her own personal 7–0 run to instantly bring the women back within one point. Then McKenna Warnock and the others got involved and allowed the women to end the 1st quarter up 25–21. Clark finished the quarter with 15 points, and assisted on every other basket made that quarter.

The 2nd quarter was more of the same with Clark and Warnock scoring 13 of the team’s 23 points, and Iowa shooting 62% for the quarter. Still, Louisville matched them basket for basket, and at the end of the half, the lead had only moved from four points to five.

But as had also happened in the previous game less than 48 hours earlier in the Sweet 16 vs. Colorado, that changed after halftime. The Hawkeyes went on a 3rd quarter rampage, both beginning and ending the quarter on dominating 11–0 runs. While teams can (and as has been shown on this list, have, and more than once) lose, even up 19 after three quarters, NO WAY were the Hawk women going to allow anything to get close to a triumph dedicated to Coach Jensen.

Indeed, when they cut down the nets, one of the final pieces was reserved for Coach Jan. As she held it in her hand, she made a gesture with it towards the heavens. The women won it for her, while Jan’s tireless preparation, especially for people like Monika Czinano, was for him. Jensen was also given the privilege of pasting Iowa's nameplate onto the large locker room bracket that showed them winning the regional and heading for the Final Four.

Iowa shot nearly 54% for the game. And while a young lady named Hailey Van Lith, who transferred to LSU after the season, led the Cardinal with 27 points, while Olivia Cochran added 20 points and 14 rebounds, Caitlin Clark once again hit her magic, amazingly dominating number of 41 points. She also had 12 assists and 10 rebounds, making her the first player ever to record a 40+ point triple double, a remarkable feat for a team playing to get into the Final Four.

McKenna Warnock chipped in with 17 points and 5 rebounds, while Gabbie Marshall added 14 points, and Monika Czinano added 9 points and 5 rebounds as the Hawkeyes rolled into Dallas, Texas and the Final Four, winning handily, 97–83. It would be only their second EVER Final Four, with the first one back in the 1990’s (before these young ladies were even born) under previous coach C. Vivian Stringer.

After the upsets of seeds #1, 3 and 4, Iowa had become the favorite to advance out of this region – and now they did. But waiting in the wings was one of the most dominant teams the NCAA had seen in almost a decade, a South Carolina team that hadn’t lost in over a year. And if Iowa wanted this season to be truly special, this was the team they knew, at some point, they were going to have to contend with. And they needed a plan that would involve what the best of all the coaches – including Coach Jan, could provide, without even a quick trip back to Iowa City to get fresh clothes.
4TH: IOWA 86 #2 Indiana 85 – Senior Day, 2023.

How in the world did this Iowa team, that started out as a pretty good team with a young lady who was truly a generational talent, become downright elite, blowing past any number of really good teams to end up with back–to–back NCAA runner–up finishes? More than a few of the basketball pundits and commentators who followed the Hawkeyes closely believe it was here – the final regular season game in the first of their two historic runs.

As I have said before, a “Senior Day” game is not ordinarily supposed to be a game of great significance, at least not nationally. Yes, it is wonderful to honor those who have made such a tremendous sacrifice in their years at the university and get a chance to meet their parents and such. And if you are a good team, no matter who you play, you probably would expect to win. And let’s face it, there are only so many good teams to go around, so even if you could choose your competition for that game (which you can’t, of course), it is more likely to be just an average team you play – or worse.

Again, as I detailed earlier, it seems beyond amazing who Iowa got to play for their final three regular season games in the Caitlin Clark era. Their first opponent, Michigan, ended up in the Elite Eight that season, even as the torch was passed as the best player in the league (from Naz Hillman to Caitlin Clark). But their last two opponents, Indiana and Ohio State, came in with records, players, and chips on their shoulders that put them amongst the nation’s greatest. And even though we’ve already discussed the Ohio State game, the comparison is worth noting.

Both teams came in rated #2 in the country. Ohio State brought in a 15–game winning streak; Indiana brought in a 14–game winning streak and had lost only once all season. Between the two seasons, both Indiana and Ohio State had three players make 1st–team all Big Ten, two more from each made 2nd–team; and two more from each made honorable mention. The teams took turns being honored to have the league’s “Defensive Player of the Year”, and had an additional player make the conference’s “All–Defensive” team. They each had one representative on the “All–Freshman” team with Ohio State getting the ”Freshman of the Year” following the 2023 season. Finally, their head coaches – Teri Moren of Indiana and Kevin McGuff of Ohio State – each got one “Coach of the Year” honor.

What did Iowa have? Two–time national player–of–the–year, Catilin Clark. Yes, there were a few more honors – Monika Czinano was 1st–team All–Big–Ten that first year, and Hannah Stuelke made the 2nd team, as well as the all–freshman team and 6th–player–of–the–year, while McKenna Warnock was honorable mention. And more than a few Hawkeye women were honored for academic and sportsmanship awards. But unless Caitlin Clark proved to be the great equalizer, one had to wonder if Iowa could REALLY compete against talent like that. The earlier discussion of Ohio State and 2024 Senior Day proved that.

But this game against Indiana moved the Hawkeyes into a territory where there was no ceiling – no inevitable loss at some point in the NCAA tournament. This was the day when they became a team to be downright feared – because they were going to find a way to win, night in and night out. And behind it was not only a unique and special talent in Clark, but also a coaching staff that almost always had the Hawks ready – for anything.

In many ways, this game, through the first 38 minutes, played out much like the Maryland game did in the Big Ten Conference tournament six days later (see #8), only much closer – and with a very different ending that will probably still be replayed decades from now.

The Hawkeyes, after watching Indiana actually bring out their regular–season championship trophy (which they had already clinched before the game started) got out to a quick start, taking two different 11–point leads in the 1st quarter. But Indiana, whose winning streak had them playing at an exceptionally high level, kept coming back. It took a couple of key baskets at the end of the 1st quarter to put the Hawkeyes up five. And just like in the Maryland game, ultimately that was the difference in having one more point at the end of the game.

The tough, physical play of this game started to take its toll in terms of fouls as well. By game’s end, each team had three players with four fouls, and had to get creative to keep their best teams on the floor when they had to sit players in foul trouble, especially in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. But through it all, Iowa was able to keep the lead almost the entire game.

But one got the sense this game may not go Iowa’s way, as each time they broke out by a few points, the margin became less and less. And when Monika Czinano missed a short layup with 6 seconds to play and the game tied, Hawk fans worst fears started taking over, a reality made even worse when Czinano was called for a foul against Hoosier Mackenzie Holmes in the final second. Holmes free throws put Indiana up two – and after a clock review, 1.5 seconds was placed back on it.

That was the moment when the book was closed on previous Iowa teams, and a new and exciting chapter was brought to the fore. Honestly, it started with head coach Lisa Bluder who, from this time forward, and with the help of a dedicated and creative staff, always had a plan ready for the Iowa women that was somewhere between really good and downright brilliant. And this play was no exception. She admitted later that she had seen this out–of–bounds play watching basketball at home one night with her season finished, and ran the DVR back–and–forth several times until she knew where every player would need to be and what they would need to do.

I need not share more with you – you’ve seen the play, executed perfectly by each member of the team, from the Czinano (perfect and legal) screen, to Kate Martin knowing exactly where and how to pass it to Clark so she was in a position to shoot, to an early double–screen by Warnock and Marshall to get Clark free. This new Iowa team wouldn’t lose again until they ran out of gas after a short layover on the way to the national championship game.

Caitlin Clark just missed both a double– and triple–double, with 34 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. Monika Czinano also had 9 rebounds and used the 2nd half to get out of a severe scoring funk that had held her to just 4 points in the previous game (at Maryland) and just 2 points in the 1st half. She finished with 13. Kate Martin was huge with 19 points and 4 assists. This offset a tough and balanced Indiana attack with four players combining for 73 of their points (Holmes – 21; Parrish and Moore–McNeil – 18 apiece; and Berger – 16) with a fifth (Garzon) grabbing a game–high 14 rebounds. The two teams combined to shoot just over 50% and the total combined turnovers was a highly commendable 15.

Two things came out of that game, both indicative of the future. Holly Rowe, who admitted that Clark was – and remains – by far her favorite interview, asked the perfect question to Clark about her final shot that allowed Caitlin to show that any player who can make a shot like that in the final second is entitled to a little “swagger” when she said to Holly, “Honestly, I thought it was MONEY!”

But the author of these also had a notable reaction. I have to admit, it didn’t occur to me that we might actually run such a well–designed play that would result in a game–winning shot, even if we did have Caitlin Clark. But when it went down, I jumped up and started yelling at the Indiana players, “YOUR SEASON IS OVER!” Why, I cannot say, especially since they played so well at C.H.A. that day, especially for an opposing team’s Senior Day. But I proved to be correct as they finished in a meltdown, both in the semi’s of the Big Ten Conference tournament and in the round of 32 in their own gym, a place they hadn’t lost at all season. And yes, the Ohio State team of the following season had the exact same thing happen to them – the Hawkeye women downright ruined good seasons of two really good teams.
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7TH: IOWA 94 Nebraska 89, OT – Big Ten Conference Tournament final, 2024.

This was a very tough game and winning it, and the Big Ten Tournament Championship
supposedly earned us a manageable seed in the NCAA Tournament

However the powers that be didn't exactly see it that way and the Hawks had perhaps the toughest
path to the Final Four in History
I don't think the powers that be have heard the last of the Hawks. It will take some time but I will bet we are humming again by the latter part of next season.
3RD: IOWA 94 LSU 87 – Elite Eight game, 2024.

I doubt there is much debate over which three games fill the top spots in this “Top 25”. And probably not much more in terms of the order of the three. But a case could be made to put this game higher, simply because Iowa proved, for the second consecutive season, that no team was out of reach to be taken down by the Hawkeye women.

Following the championship game in 2023, that didn’t seem to be likely. OK, the tired Hawkeye women just didn’t have the depth or crisp execution that had guided them to the finals. And for once, the scouting report of a team playing Iowa was carried out to near perfection.

But with LSU and their new coach, Kim Mulkey (who had already won three national championships at Baylor) sitting atop the women’s basketball world, what did they go and do? Take on some transfers that, at least on paper, were going to make them at least as good if not even better in 2024.

OK, the Tigers had lost two starters and a reserve off that 2023 team that combined for 63 of LSU’s 102 points in the win over Iowa. Reserve Jasmine Carson was almost perfect from the field – and the Iowa scouting report had barely made mention of her. But to replace them, LSU got THE top two transfers in all of college basketball going into that next season – Aneesah Morrow, who’d had a career year at DePaul; and Hailey Van Lith, who had gone up against Iowa and Clark in the Elite Eight in 2023. Add to that an exciting young freshman named Mikaylah Williams, and LSU seemed every bit the team to beat as they turned out to be the previous season.

But there was trouble in Baton Rouge almost from the beginning of the season. 2023 starter and former Ohio State defensive specialist Kateri Poole was dismissed from the team (for reasons never explained), while star Angel Reese was suspended (for what turned out to be academic issues) for a number of the early games in the Fall of 2023. There was also a season–ending knee injury to 2023 freshman star Sa’Myah Smith just seven games into the season, and some early–season foot difficulties suffered by Van Lith.

Still, after an early neutral–court loss to Colorado, LSU rolled into mid–January with no further losses – and most games not even close. Now they did lose on the road to Mississippi State and Auburn, along with a pair of games to eventual national champion South Carolina (at LSU and in the finals of the conference tournament). But after a season where they had lost only two games – one at South Carolina and the other to Tennessee in the conference tournament championship game, this season seemed disappointing in comparison.

And that bore itself out with the Tigers getting only a #3 seed in the murderous regional that included Iowa. But still, none of their first three games of the NCAA tournament, including against #2–seed UCLA, gave them much of a challenge. But now, rather than the national finals for a stage, LSU would face top–seeded Iowa in the Elite Eight.

The bitter pill of 2023 still had a bad taste lingering in the mouths of the Hawkeye women. So even though this game was the second of a double–set of games in Albany, New York, and barely 48 hours after a Saturday afternoon stomping of Colorado, Iowa was determined to make sure this game had a much different outcome.

And once again, the person who had the determination to absolutely make another Final Four happen was none other than Caitlin Clark. Lest one forget, she had a 41–point triple–double in the Elite Eight vs. Louisville and another 41 points vs. top–seeded South Carolina in the national semi–finals the year before. And she was prepared to do that – and more, if necessary, to make it happen.

Still, it was going to take a true team–wide effort to take down the talented Tigers. And in the 1st half, Iowa did precisely that, with every Hawkeye starter getting a key early basket as the Hawkeye women made 10 of their first 14 shots, giving them leads between six and nine points. But the inevitable cool–down hit the Hawkeye women as they followed that up going only two for their next elven. Meanwhile, Angel Reese and company were starting to dominate on the boards, and their rebounding often led to secondary break baskets. After one quarter, Iowa trailed 31–26, and with an early “3” by the Tigers in the 2nd quarter, the lead went to a game–high (for them) eight points.

Iowa fought back behind Caitlin Clark, and another less–likely Hawkeye, who had one of her best overall games that night, Sydney Affolter, who had 13 points at the half, and hit her four baskets (including two “3’s”) at critical times, including the shot that started bringing Iowa back from that early–2nd–quarter eight–point deficit. Affolter, who had only entered the starting line–up after the loss of Molly Davis, was now 30–53 from the field since then, also going 9–15 from “3” and making an impressive 25–28 free throws. With her play, and that of her teammates, the game went into the half an entertaining 45–45 tie.

But the 2nd half belonged totally to Caitlin Clark – and she made it clear that, while there may have been a number of elite players playing for spots in the Final Four, including USC’s JuJu Watkins, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and LSU’s Angel Reese, there was only one Caitlin Clark. And she didn’t wait long to show it, launching three monster “3’s” in the first 2½ minutes of the 3rd quarter, and adding a fourth a few minutes later. Iowa took over, leading 69–58 going into the 4th quarter. And while LSU was able to cut the lead to six and even five points down the stretch, Clark used her continued shot–making and deft passing to keep the Tigers at bay. Clark finished with (what else??) 41 points, along with 12 assists and 7 rebounds. Kate Martin added 21 points and 6 rebounds, while Affolter finished up with 16 and 5.

Iowa held LSU to 38.6% shooting, even though the Tigers got off an amazing 88 shots for the game. Clark had nine “3’s” for the game, breaking her own program record. She also broke her own record for most assists in a season. And while she had already set way too many records up to this point to list them all, she did set an NCAA tournament record for most assists (140) and “3’s” (70) in a career.

Meanwhile Angel Reese, while she did lead a dominating rebounding effort from the Tigers (54–36 over Iowa, with Reese getting 20 of those), was slowed by an ankle injury suffered in the 2nd quarter. And while she had made six of her first nine shots, went only 1–12 after that. She also fouled out, leading to a modified version of “The Wave” from Hawkeye fans. Teammate Hailey Van Lith, who had played far better for Louisville in the Elite Eight of the previous year, had a miserable night, getting schooled on defense time and again by Clark, especially in the 2nd half, and being held to only nine points on the night.

Whether stacking the Iowa regional was done purposefully or not, the bottom line is the top–seeded Hawkeyes were the ones to make it out of that “murderer’s row”, and did so decisively. But now waiting for them in the Final Four would be the only “blue–blood” women’s team bluer than South Carolina – the UConn Huskies.
2ND: IOWA 71 UConn 69 – 2024 NCAA Tournament National Semi–Final.

Fair or unfair, there are certain teams that have placed themselves into the position of being the “blue bloods” of college basketball. Some teams on that list change from generation to generation, while others (Kansas in men’s basketball is an excellent example) seem to be there in perpetuity. And even though, up until recently, men’s basketball was so much more popular than women’s, still you could probably list almost as many women’s teams that seemed to always be at or near the top, even if the coach that brought them to that level (see Tennessee – Pat Summitt and more) is now long gone.

And remember this – women’s NCAA college basketball has a much shorter history as a recognized sport than men’s b–ball has, dating back only to 1982. Former Iowa women’s head coach C. Vivian Stringer was part of THE first recognized championship game, as coach at Cheyney State, losing to a team that, at the beginning, was another of the college blue bloods, Louisiana Tech. When Stringer took Iowa to the Final Four in 1993, it had only been in existence a little more than 10 years.

Still, in the 40+ year history of the tournament, only two teams have ever visited the finals more than 10 times. The afore–mentioned Pat Summitt and the Tennessee Volunteers, amongst their 18 trips to the Final Four, made the championship game an astounding thirteen times, winning eight of them (though none for over 15 years now). And Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies have visited the finals twelve times amongst their astounding 23 trips to the Final Four, winning all but one of those championship games.

So now, it is Iowa that gets to face UConn in the Final Four. And this year’s game beckoned two questions that may have to be left unanswered: “What was UConn doing in this game in 2024?” and “What was Iowa doing in this game in 2024?”

If you didn’t follow women’s college basketball closely, you should seem more surprised if UConn DIDN’T at least make the Final Four. But this year had been particularly difficult for the Huskies, mostly on the injury front. Having lost upcoming star Paige Bueckers to a knee injury the year before, one she spent most of the current season still trying to round back into form from, the Huskies lost no less than five additional players to season–ending injuries, most of them starters or key players. Azzi Fudd, who had become the team’s new star in Bueckers’ absence, suffered an ACL injury of her own. Highly–recruited freshman Jana El Alfy was lost before the season even began with a torn achilles tendon. Post player Ayanna Patterson ended up having surgery on both knees in December and may or may not return to basketball. Then Sr. forward Aubrey Griffin and Jr. guard Caroline Ducharme went out for the season in January with knee and neck injuries, respectively. The rash of injuries left UConn with only nine available players, and only six who were ready to play UConn–level basketball for significant moments, though one of them was Bueckers.

Still, with his success at UConn, Auriemma had even more young women recruited and ready to step up in Storrs, even if his bench was a bit thin – and even if, for the first time his team seemed to be playing “2nd fiddle” to the men’s team, who ended up winning back–to–back NCAA championships. One may recall Auriemma out–recruiting Iowa and Lisa Bluder for a player named Kiah Stokes (daughter of Greg), who to this day still plays in the WNBA. Oh yes, he knew how to recruit talented women who could star in his system.

But the question of Iowa being in the Final Four seemed almost as perplexing. After all, the detractors could not possibly have been wrong. They said Iowa wasn’t near the team they had been the previous season, not without Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock. And without them, it was only a matter of time before teams figured out how to shut Caitlin Clark down.

And as was discussed earlier, with Molly Davis going down, Iowa was back to having about as much depth going into the Final Four as they did the year before, a key factor in them finishing second. Still, this was the Final Four, and the winner goes to the national championship game, even though once again it was going to be barely 40 hours away.

Even though Caitlin Clark got the game’s first basket, it didn’t take long to underscore how well prepared UConn was in terms of how to guard Clark. It seemed there was always two or three women rotating perfectly to be right in Clark’s face. Indeed, after that first basket, Clark only made two more the entire half. And this time, Iowa seemed unable to find others players to make up the difference. UConn almost instantly went on a 13–3 run, one of two eight–point leads UConn took in the opening quarter. Only some clutch shooting by Hannah Stuelke and Kylie Feuerbach kept the 1st quarter as close as 19–14.

It got even worse in the 2nd quarter, as the Hawk women, getting swarmed by UConn’s defense and getting beaten by an almost perfect inside–outside game, went down by as many as 12. Sydney Affolter was key in a critical 10–2 run which helped bring the halftime score to 32–26, a “serviceable deficit” that Iowa would be able to come back from, one of the keys to game stated by coach Lisa Bluder at the post–game press conference.

By now, one thing you have learned about Clark Iowa teams is that, with some good halftime adjustments, they are going to come out a much better team in the 3rd quarter. And this game was no exception. Iowa, with Hannah Stuelke the primary beneficiary of Clark being so closely defended and receiving several zip passes, was key in Iowa being able to tie the score four times, and take three different leads, although each were only by two points. The 3rd quarter ended with Iowa outscoring UConn 25–19, and the quarter ending in a 51–all tie. Clark had only two made FG’s that quarter, but both were “3’s” with the second part of a 4–point play.

Iowa then got hot the 4th quarter, shooting 67%, after being held to barely 40% the first three quarters. For a moment, it looked like Iowa had gone up 10 on UConn, 67–57, on Gabbie Marshall’s second “3”, but it was later determined she had a foot on the line, and after a time–out, Iowa was still up 66–57 with four minutes to play. But the game changed markedly after that. Caitlin Clark didn’t score another FG (after getting seven points in that six–minute run). Hannah Stuelke, who was up to 23 points, also didn’t score again.
After the Huskies cut the lead quickly to four on two occasions, Kate Martin came through with two of the toughest clutch shots – one a layup in traffic on a spin move, the other a turnaround jumper with the shot clock winding down, to keep the game at 70–66 with 2 minutes left.

But that was Iowa’s last FG of the game. And after a pair of horrible and badly–timed turnovers by Hannah Stuelke, UConn had the ball, down one point with just under 10 seconds to play. But now, the defensive intensity of Gabbie Marshall came through, as she fought through a screen by Huskies center Aaliyah Edwards trying to guard Paige Bueckers (who clearly was the one who was supposed to get the ball and shoot on that play) and forced Edwards to move, lift her elbow, and place her legs in a way that immediately got called for an illegal screen. Although UConn fans complained bitterly, once a replay showed the perspective from where the official was standing, it apparently was an easy call to make – and even at that point in the game, the right one.

The game still wasn’t over. Yes, Iowa had the ball, and in the front court. And after a quick foul to Caitlin Clark, the Hawkeyes were facing the (seeming) prospect that, no matter what Clark did, UConn most likely would get the ball one more time. And although the almost–always–clutch Clark drilled the first free throw, she missed the second. But just like on a closing shot one year earlier, an Iowa player, this time Sydney Affolter, got the offensive rebound. And even though UConn tied her up, Iowa got the ball back on the alternating possession. Then Clark, in brilliant move, noticed Bueckers had her back turned, and bounced the ball off her leg and back out of bounds, using up most of the remaining time. A final inbounds pass to Kate Martin, with Martin throwing the ball up into the air ended the game in a tough 71–69 final and sending them to the championship game.

For once, Clark wasn’t the leading scorer, although even with the attention she drew, she still went for 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. As mentioned before, Stuelke went for 23, while Kate Martin, scoring 6 of Iowa’s final 8 points via FG’s went for 11 points and 8 rebounds, while Affolter had 8 points and 7 rebounds. Iowa outrebounded UConn 37–29 and was only whistled for 9 fouls, which may have been a career low for a Clark game. Iowa had seven more FT’s than UConn, which also was the difference in the game.

OK, this was the final victory for Clark at Iowa. But Iowa, taking on three different “blue bloods” over Clark’s final two seasons (South Carolina, LSU and UConn) went 1–1 against each of them – a highly respectable performance, even if it meant Iowa only finished second twice.
1ST: IOWA 77 #1 South Carolina 73 – 2023 NCAA Tournament Semi-Final - PART I.

What does it take to defeat a team rated #1? In their history, Iowa men’s basketball teams have actually done it on a number of occasions. But that is the men – the women’s game is always a far different story. And although Caitlin Clark teams had (and would continue to) defeat(ed) teams rated as high as #2 in the country, the Iowa women had never, in their history, taken down a #1 – in fact, in the times they faced one, they never really came close.

It just seems like there is far less parity in women’s college basketball. And even though the previous article had just given UConn a thorough write–up, let’s use them for an example. Of the five longest winning streaks in the (still comparatively brief) history of women’s Division I college basketball, UConn holds four of them, with streaks ranging from 47–111 games. The other teams to make the top of that list include the earliest juggernaut, Louisiana Tech, as well as two of Kim Mulkey’s Baylor teams. That is where South Carolina and their 42–game winning streak they brought into this game fits in.

Then look at the NCAA tournament itself. Rarely has the women’s bracket been a home for true “Cinderella” teams, at least not by the time they got to the Final Four. Iowa, with their record–setting Hall–of–Fame player, Megan Gustafson, had to learn that in 2019. After getting all the way to the Elite Eight, and after winning the Big Ten Conference tournament, the Hawk women were given an absolute beat–down by the region’s top seed, Baylor, 85–53.

In fact, look at the two histories. For the men, all four #1 seeds have only ever gotten to the Final Four once – ONE TIME in its long history. Virtually never has there been more than two #1 seeds, and in just the last couple of years, there was a tournament where NONE of the #1 seeds got to the Final Four – in fact, they were all gone before the Elite Eight.

But on the women’s side, all four #1’s have advanced in four different years. In nine other years (since 1982), three #1’s advanced, and in all but one of those years, the fourth team was the top #2 seed. The total number of lower seeds getting into the Final Four (in 42 tournament years) are: two “5’s”, “6’s”, and “7’s” along with one “8”, and one “9”.

But how much do seeds really matter when you are going up against one of the finest teams assembled, especially in the SEC, which previously was not noted for multiple elite basketball programs? Ok, there was Kentucky for the men and Tennessee for the women, but most years, that was about it. But in 2023, fans who were just starting to notice this Jr. phenom named Caitlin Clark were about to find out.

On the one hand, whatever optimism Iowa fans may have had would seem to have been little more than wishful thinking. As I mentioned earlier, a team that seemed to be neck–and–neck with us, the talented Maryland Terrapins, were obliterated twice by the Gamecocks, including in the Elite Eight, where South Carolina didn’t look their best but were still an obviously far better team than their Big Ten opponent.

That said, clearly something was up. If you were old enough to remember the wild celebration that waited for the 1980 men late on a Sunday night in Iowa City as they returned home after earning a Final Four berth (beating Georgetown by one point), the very idea that Lisa Bluder chose to skip coming home altogether (so the team could head straight for Dallas and begin preparations for this game) may have seemed somewhere between curious and dubious. And yet, by this time, we had seen enough of what the Hawkeye women were capable of when they had ample time to prepare to have some hope. And for this game, they did.

Also remember this – unless you were a team that was the equivalent of UCLA in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, the NCAA tournament would invariably include one game that put winning the championship in extreme doubt.

To put it another way, there would usually be a game where a really good team would seem to spend the whole game trying to lose, and then win anyway. The team that can survive that game will usually be the one to come out on top. Of course, the trouble there is that most of the teams that play like they are trying to lose usually do (again, see Iowa–Creighton, 2022).

I doubt, as this game tipped off on a Friday night, the second of two semifinal match–ups (even though the top seed, in this case, South Carolina, should always be the first team to play), that many people were introspecting in such ways. And when Iowa actually executed some good offensive schemes and got three high quality shots at the beginning of the game, only to miss them all, and Caitlin Clark got off to a 1–4 start from three–point land, optimism was not bubbling high in Hawkeye fans hearts.

Except for one thing. The author of these glimpses back to these special days (me) was noticing that, not only was South Carolina not shooting any better, they were launching airballs. Now typically, if I notice something like that, I try not to say anything to anybody about it, almost as if I was afraid of “jinxing something”. But the Gamecocks team I worried about jumping off to a 20–4 start or something like that was not looking like the team we were playing that night.

And part of the reason for that was an absolutely brilliant defensive scheme put on by the Hawk women. It focused on unique combinations of man and zone defenses, and concentrated on locking down the inside to the point of being willing to give the Gamecocks some of the biggest cushions they would ever see to shoot outside jumpers. And while a team with a 42–game winning streak you would normally expect to eat a defense like that alive, it clearly had them confused and out–of–sync most of the game. ... ...
1ST: IOWA 77 #1 South Carolina 73 – 2023 NCAA Tournament Semi–Final, PART 2.

Before the game started, I had listed four things the Hawkeye women needed to do to win the game – and in the midst of these four was the hope that all of the boxes of things our women needed to do were going to be checked while NONE of the things the Gamecocks wanted to do were going to be checked. And for Iowa, these were my keys: *Clark historic, but with a 2nd starter having a great night offensively; *Play IOWA basketball no matter what; *Manage the fouls; *Make their edge on the boards not matter.

I shared this with others, and most of them agreed, though there was some debate as to who that “second starter having a great night” would be. Most guessed either Kate Martin or McKenna Warnock. And while I’m sure you remember the amazing efforts each of them put in, especially defensively, I’m not sure anyone saw the night coming from Monika Czinano that she ended up having.

But the evidence was there early on, as she blocked one shot and literally ripped the ball away from one of their “bigs” on another possession – the nastiest defense I ever saw her play in her years at Iowa. Then with Warnock’s lockdown on star Aliyah Boston resulting in two early fouls, one had to wonder if the Hawk women really were ready to take down this team. With Clark apparently needing to handle the ball about 80–85% of the time, and her getting out of her early funk, the Hawk women used bookend runs of 9–2 and 8–2 to take a 22–13 lead after one quarter. Clark scored or assisted on 19 of those.

But this was South Carolina, and their bench was filled with quality depth that could fill in to make whatever adjustments had to be made in case some of their starters failed. And between those bench players, and a fast, slashing guard named Zia Cooke (who led them in scoring that night), the Gamecocks eventually got a pair of one–point leads.

Still, Iowa took a one–point lead into the half (which I felt was critical), largely on the one other box the Iowa women checked that night to win the game – and that was to win the free throw battle. More on that later.

The 3rd quarter started off the way the 1st quarter did, with Iowa jumping out quickly and South Carolina constantly changing personnel, both to wear Iowa down, and to keep giving them different looks. But aside from a freshman named Raven Johnson, the reserves neither played the minutes nor had the effectiveness they did in the first half. With an impressive closing stretch of six points by Czinano – four at the FT line, and a closing basket off a feed from Clark, Iowa led 59–55 after three quarters – and hope reigned supreme.

But that hope took a major hit in the first minute of the 4th quarter. Even though Iowa had held two–time defensive player–of–the–year, Aliyah Boston, without a FG until the 7–minute mark of the 3rd quarter, a slashing layup by her gave the Gamecocks the lead, 60–59. If the Hawk fans were like me, the reaction at that moment was, “well, here we go.”

And in one sense, that is EXACTLY what happened, except not by South Carolina. Caitlin Clark, cementing her legacy with maybe the best quarter of her life, drained a “3” from the left wing (way) extended to give Iowa the lead back. Then after a bad miss by the Gamecocks, Clark worked an absolutely perfect pick–and–roll with Czinano to put the Hawks back up four. After another putback by 6’7” Kamilla Cardoso, who was perfect on the night up to that point, Clark, launched a monster “logo 3” that the announcer dubbed as “ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS.” Then, working with her teammates, Clark slashed for three straight layups to keep South Carolina at bay.

But if you were a Gamecocks fan, you still felt like you had a shot in the game’s final thirty seconds. And with the score at 73–71, following a South Carolina foul, and with the shot clock winding down, Clark was forced to take a “3” from the left wing, which she missed. But then, even though South Carolina dominated Iowa for the night in terms of rebounding, especially off the offensive glass (26–5), the BIGGEST offensive rebound went to McKenna Warnock, who got the ball back to Clark. Clark’s four free throws iced the game, and Iowa had a shocking win, ending the reign of a team that would end up losing only three games in three years.

One quickly runs our of words to describe what happened here. For Iowa, this truly was the upset of all times. And while there were many factors, including all the checkmarks I listed earlier, that led to this win, maybe THE biggest key was Iowa making EVERY SINGLE FREE THROW that night – all 14 of them – and they needed them all. And since South Carolina missed only four, but did miss four, that was the difference in the game.

Clark once again did her “41–point thing”, adding in eight assists and six rebounds, and becoming the first player in NCAA Tournament history to have back–to–back 40–point games. She was also the second player to score 40 or more point in an NCAA Women’s Final Four game. Monika Czinano was the only other player in double figures, but her 18 points against a team with such superior size may have been the night’s catalyst. Iowa’s 77 points was the season high given up by the defensive–minded Gamecocks.

But every player on the floor had a huge hand in the win. Both Warnock and Martin had “3’s” at key moments in the game to keep the momentum in Iowa’s favor. Gabbie Marshall played her usual “sniper” role, getting three steals and finally locking down Zia Cooke down the stretch, giving the Hawkeyes their necessary breathing room. And if there is one more player that has to be commended, it was Addison O’Grady, who had to play key minutes during Monika Czinano’s foul trouble, and not only played great defense, but even scored four key points in the 3rd quarter.

There is little doubt in my mind that, if South Carolina had won that game, they would have EASILY dispensed with LSU and would now be sitting on a three–year streak of national championships. And to be honest, the fact that this win did not end up allowing Iowa to win a championship of their own matters little to me – and probably to most Hawk fans. That night, the women went into their first Final Four and showed that Iowa is capable of playing where NO ONE will defeat them. For those who watched that game that night, it may be the Hawkeye highlight of the next years, maybe even decades.

But even if it is, meaning that time has now come to an end, we can always remember what Caitlin Clark did – not just for Iowa, but for women’s basketball. What will we hear of her in the years to come? Who knows. But for those special nights, let this serve as a marker that we can always return to so that we can relive those precious and exciting moments – again and again and again. THANKS FOR READING THESE!

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