Ever since Caitlin Clark committed to Iowa a little over a year ago, fans have waited for her to make her college debut. Iowa has had a number of great players, especially in the past few seasons, but none of them have been ranked as highly as Clark out of high school. Safe to say, she lived up to the expectations. Iowa rolled to a 96-81 victory over Northern Iowa, thanks in part to Clark’s 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Iowa started the game on a 19-4 run thanks in large part to Clark. She attacked the basket off the dribble relentlessly to start the game, scoring a couple baskets, drawing fouls and converting the free throws, or dishing off for an easy assist. UNI battled back from there, drawing the game as close as eight, before a Clark basket gave Iowa a 24-14 lead at the end of one. Clark had 10 points in the first quarter.
The beginning of the second quarter belonged to Northern Iowa. The Panthers finally started to hit on a few of the open threes they were taking, and Iowa’s offensive momentum stalled. At the 6:03 mark in the second quarter, UNI actually took a brief one-point lead. The two teams then battled back and forth from there, before a late Iowa run gave the Hawkeyes a 43-36 lead at halftime.
The third quarter went about as well as it possibly could have for Iowa. The Hawkeyes started attacking the paint and glass even harder, and drew a number of UNI fouls early in the quarter. That earned them opportunities at the free throw line that they mostly converted, but also opened up the defense a bit, allowing Iowa some open three-point attempts that they also started hitting. Iowa scored an amazing 38 points in the third quarter, and took a comfortable 81-58 lead into the final period.
Iowa’s starters played the first five or so minutes of the fourth quarter, stretching the lead as high as 25 several times, before Coach Bluder put the bench players in to finish the game out. Ultimately Iowa held on for a 96-81 victory.
As mentioned, Clark led Iowa with 27 points (on 10-17 shooting), 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. She also added three steals on the defensive end, and just missed on a few others. Monika Czinano had a typically strong game, too, scoring 19 points on 7-12 shooting. New starter McKenna Warnock added 14 points (on only seven shots), along with 13 rebounds and 6 assists. Gabbie Marshall was the final Hawkeye in double figures with 11, including three three-pointers. A box score for the game is here.
That was as impressive a freshman debut as I have ever seen. Clark gets to the basket better than any Iowa guard in the last half decade at least, and she can finish close to the basket in a number of different ways. If defenders try to play back and prevent penetration, she instead pulls up and drills a jumper over top of them. Good luck guarding her.
And Clark didn’t just impact the game by scoring. She made several passes from near half court to teammates free under the basket that led to wide open layups for her teammates because the UNI defenders didn’t anticipate that such a pass could be made.
Defensively, she had several steals that led to breakaway opportunities on the other end, and just missed on a couple others. And she also contributed on the glass grabbing eight rebounds.
Clark’s performance wasn’t flawless. She took a couple of ill-advised shots and made a couple passes that were too ambitious. But she’s miles ahead of any freshman Iowa has had in years, and she will get even better as she adjusts to the college game.
I should also note that Clark’s performance tonight didn’t just come against a bad mid-major. Northern Iowa returned a lot of players from last year’s team that beat Iowa by 22 in Cedar Falls in a game that Iowa never looked close to winning.
Coming into the year, I wasn’t particularly worried about Iowa’s offense. Part of that was knowing that Clark was going to be really good. Another big part of that was Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock.
Czinano was great in the low post last year, and I expect Clark’s presence to open up even more good shot attempts for her this year. It’s hard to double the post when teams have to be worried about Clark driving past her defender or leaving Iowa’s wings with wide open threes.
Warnock didn’t shoot a lot tonight, but she did manage to score 14 points on only seven shots. I expect Warnock to shoot more as the year goes on, and her offensive versatility should also pair well with Clark.
Iowa’s offensive big three, plus a variety of good shooting wing options, should make this a great team offensively. Even better, the big three could be playing together for the next three seasons. Coming into the year it looked like Czinano, a junior, would only have two seasons of basketball left at Iowa. But because of COVID-19 and the uncertainty surrounding this season, the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility if they choose to take it. We could see Clark, Czinano, and Warnock teaming up to lead Iowa’s offense for a long, long time.
I was more worried about how this team would rebound coming into the year, but so far so good in that regard. Iowa outrebounded UNI by 10 tonight, and also didn’t surrender a ton of east offensive rebounds. A big part of that was Warnock, who was aggressive on the boards all night. Another part was guards like Clark and Kate Martin making rebounding a focus. Hopefully that team rebounding effort continues.
Tonight’s game also gave some insight into the team’s expected rotations going forward. While the game was competitive, Coach Bluder played 10 players. Megan Meyer, Lauren Jensen, and Alexis Sevillian backed up Clark, Marshall, and Martin at the three guard spots. It looked like Meyer was the primary backup 1 when Clark was off the floor, though the three guards were somewhat interchangeable during that time. Meyer also played a bit with Clark on the floor too.
At forward, Logan Cook backed up Warnock, and Sharon Goodman backed up Czinano. Goodman in particular looked good, scoring nine points, grabbing five rebounds, and blocking two shots. Iowa will definitely benefit from having a natural 5 to backup Czinano this year.
Iowa returns to action next Wednesday, December 2 at Drake starting at 6 PM CT. Viewing options for the game, if any, have not been announced.