Purdue has been one of my least favorite Iowa opponents in the last few years. For most of that time, Purdue has been a middle of the conference team. Yet when they play Iowa, the games are usually close. Often they’re fairly physical. And often Purdue hits a lot of jumpers that just make you shake your head.
Today’s game was a similar story. Purdue led 21-17 after the first quarter, in part because Iowa had seven first quarter turnovers. Things didn’t go much better in the first five minutes of the second quarter, and Purdue held its lead.
Then Iowa stopped turning the ball over, and its offense finally got rolling. Iowa took a 44-39 lead into halftime thanks to that improved offense and Purdue finally missing some of its jumpers. It looked like Iowa had finally figured things out and was showing that it was the better team.
That late second quarter momentum mostly carried over to the third quarter. Iowa grew its lead to eight early in the quarter, and led 63-56 with under a minute to play in the third quarter.
But just as Iowa looked on the cusp of putting the game away, Purdue got hot offensively and started to shut Iowa down. Over the next six minutes of game time, Purdue scored 19 points and held Iowa to just six. Iowa’s 7-point lead turned into a 6-point deficit, and the Hawkeyes looked lost.
With just under five minutes to play, Coach Bluder called timeout. In the huddle she made two key defensive changes for the game’s final few minutes. I’ll discuss those more below, but a quick summary is that the defensive changes worked very well. Iowa surrendered just six more points the rest of the game, and four of those were in the final 18 seconds. The Hawkeyes also went on an offensive run of their own to close things out.
Iowa’s late game run started with Monika Czinano. Czinano had struggled to get open most of the game, but finally found a little space to work and hit a couple of baskets back-to-back. Then it was McKenna Warnock’s turn. Over the course of a minute and a half, the sophomore made two free throws, hit a three to give Iowa the lead again, and then made a layup to extend that lead to five points. Czinano hit another layup 30 seconds later, and the game was pretty much over. Iowa made a few free throws late and closed out an 87-81 victory. The Hawks ended the game on an 18-6 run.
Caitlin Clark led Iowa with 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists, though she shot just 8-20 from the floor. She also didn’t play much of a role in Iowa’s late run. More on that below. McKenna Warnock scored 19 points on just 5-5 shooting. She also went 7-9 from the free throw line and added 8 rebounds. Czinano was the last Hawkeye in double figures with 12 points and 9 rebounds, though she was only 5-11 from the floor. A box score for the game is here.
Iowa’s first defensive change was tactical. For most of the game, Iowa played man-to-man defense. Several times throughout the game, and especially during its fourth quarter run, Purdue took advantage of that by having Czinano’s defender set a high ball screen. Czinano hedged hard off the screen every time to stop the guard’s penetration, but the screener dove for the basket after setting the screen. Czinano wasn’t fast enough to recover, and the screener was often left wide open under the basket for an easy layup.
To solve that issue, Coach Bluder had Czinano switch defensive responsibilities with Warnock every time Czinano’s player went to set a screen. Warnock then went to guard the screener and Czinano rotated to the Purdue post still standing around the basket. Warnock was able to hedge the screen and still get back to her defender without leaving the paint open.
Purdue went back to the high ball screen a couple times in the last few minutes, but with the switch, they weren’t able to get any good looks.
I’m not sure having Czinano switch will be effective moving forward. If other teams play their 4 on the perimeter, Warnock and Czinano won’t be able to switch defenders every time there’s a high ball screen. But for this game the change was extremely effective and helped Iowa get stops late. Coach Bluder deserves credit for making the change and not giving time for Purdue to adjust to it.
Taking Clark Out
Iowa’s other defensive change was more noticeable. Coach Bluder took Caitlin Clark out of the game coming out of the timeout with five minutes left, and she didn’t return to the game until there was less than a minute left and Iowa already had the game close to wrapped up. In Clark’s place was Tomi Taiwo, a player who hasn’t played much this season, but played a lot today, mostly because of her perimeter defense.
To put it bluntly, Clark’s defense this season has been bad bordering on terrible. Her defensive woes are most noticeable in her rotations. She often waits to close out defenders on the perimeter until after they have the ball in their hands instead of anticipating passes and closing out while the ball is in the air. She also doesn’t play great help-side defense, and gets beat too often off the dribble.
An there’s no real excuse for why Clark’s defense is so bad. She’s not slow. She’s taller than most guards. And she has a great basketball IQ. Ultimately, I think her defensive problems come down to ball watching and effort, both of which are within her control.
Today, Clark’s defense was bad again, and it helped Purdue get open shots from three-point range that they hit at a fairly high rate for most of the game. Notably, though, Purdue didn’t make a single three-pointer in the game’s final five minutes. Taiwo’s defense helped make a difference.
Hopefully today’s benching is a wake-up call for Clark. She’s a phenomenal offensive player. She’s also a great rebounder for a guard. But if she wants to lead Iowa to a Final Four and have a long career in the WNBA she’s also going to have to improve significantly on the defensive end.
Iowa returns to action on Thursday, January 21 at 4 PM CT on the road at #7 Maryland. The Terps are 11-1 on the season and 7-0 in the Big Ten. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.