With the Big Ten as deep as it is this year, it feels like any game against an unranked opponent is big for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have already suffered a number of losses, both home and away, against ranked opponents. They need to add more to the win column to build their NCAA Tournament resume.
At first glance, playing Nebraska on the road seems like a great opportunity. Coming into tonight’s game, the Huskers were 9-7 on the season and 7-6 in the Big Ten. Based on record alone, they seemed like a good team, but not nearly as good as the other opponents Iowa has lost to.
But Nebraska’s record is somewhat deceptive. The Huskers own wins this season over #12 Ohio State and #21 Northwestern, and lost by just two to #12 Michigan. The Huskers also have some bad losses on their resume, but they’ve shown that they can compete, and beat, the top teams in the conference when they play well.
In the first quarter, tonight’s game looked like it would be a shootout. Both teams shot well, particularly from three, and neither had many strong defensive possessions. When the quarter ended, Iowa led 29-23 thanks largely to 13 points from Caitlin Clark.
The second quarter was the polar opposite. Iowa played better defense and Nebraska cooled off significantly from the floor. But Iowa couldn’t take advantage of that because it suffered through multiple long scoring droughts thanks primarily to turnovers that killed possessions. At the very end of the quarter, Clark grabbed a rebound and found Tomi Taiwo in transition for a layup that just barely beat the buzzer. Taiwo’s basket extended Iowa’s halftime lead to 41-35.
The third quarter started as a defensive struggle for Iowa. Nebraska was attacking the basket off the dribble and through post entries, and were getting plenty of good looks. But then Iowa’s defense stiffened, and its offense got back into gear, running off a 10-0 run. Nebraska finally broke its drought late in the quarter, scoring two quick baskets, before a Warnock three at the buzzer pushed Iowa’s lead to double-digits to end the quarter at 65-54.
Iowa dominated much of the fourth quarter. Clark kept on scoring, and Nebraska’s offense couldn’t manage to hit a three. With just under 5 minutes to play, Iowa led 78-61, and the game looked over.
But then things went very, very wrong for Iowa. Nebraska started hitting basket after basket, and Iowa’s offense went cold. In less than three minutes, Nebraska managed to cut Iowa’s 17-point lead down to 4, and they had a possession to cut that down further, but finally missing a shot.
Then, with just over a minute to play, Clark took over. She slowly dribbled out Iowa’s shot clock, then pulled up a three-point shot from the edge of the half court logo, and, like many of her shots tonight, it found the bottom of the net. Nebraska kept on fighting, but Iowa hit its free throws and closed out an 88-81 victory.
Clark led Iowa with 39 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. She also set her teammates up for at least three or four additional bunnies that they missed. Had they finished those shots, Clark would’ve had a 39-point triple-double. Clark finished the game 12/18 from the floor, 6/10 from three, and a perfect 9/9 from the free throw line. She’s had some big games so far in her young college career, but this might well have been her best. The Big Ten Network broadcast also noted that Clark has scored 30 points in three straight games. That’s something that Megan Gustafson never accomplished in her illustrious Iowa career. 39 points was also a record for most points scored in Pinnacle Bank Arena -- by a men's or women's basketball player.
McKenna Warnock was Iowa’s second leading scorer with 19 points and 6 rebounds. She went 4/8 from three. Monika Czinano was Iowa’s last double-digit scorer with 17. A box score for tonight’s game is here.
This was a much-needed win for Iowa. As mentioned above, Nebraska has beaten some of the best teams in the conference, and has been especially tough at home. A loss in this game would’ve pushed Iowa closer toward the NCAA Tournament bubble. But instead, Iowa played one of its best games of the season. Now the team has a week to rest and prepare for the stretch run.
I also thought this was one of Iowa’s better defensive performance except for the first quarter and final few minutes of the fourth. Iowa did a good job overall of defending the perimeter and contesting shots around the basket.
I’ve talked a lot this year about Iowa’s defensive problems. One frustration I have with college sports statistics is that they don’t do a good job of showing the job individual defenders do. You can analyze the team’s defensive statistics, but not statistics of each player on the team. At least not with easily available statistics.
Tonight, I decided to track a stat I’ll call points against. For every defensive possession in which Nebraska scored, I awarded points to the defender I thought responsible. So if a defender was guarding a wing and that wing shot a three-pointer over her, I gave the defender three points. If a player threw a bad pass and it led to a run-out layup, I gave that player two points. If two defenders both made mistakes and it resulted in a two-point basket, I split the points one to one between them. I also have a “team” category if it isn’t clear who was responsible for the points surrendered defensively.
The intent of this stat is to show which players are giving up the most points defensively. The results from tonight are below. For context, I first show how many minutes a player played, then how many points they are responsible for. Because I split points, it’s possible for a player to be responsible for half points.
Clark: 38 min—13 pts
Marshall: 33min—11 pts
Martin: 31min—9.5 pts
Warnock: 34min—13 pts
Czinano: 29 min—10 pts
Meyer: 8 min—0 pts
Taiwo: 17min—14.5 pts
Cook: 1min—4 pts
Goodman: 9min— 3 pts
Team: 3 pts
It’s too early to have any big takeaways from this stat. Most of the starters tonight surrendered about the same number of points. Tomi Taiwo and Logan Cook gave up a disproportionate number of points compared to their minutes played, while Megan Meyer didn’t give up any in 8 minutes. I will try to continue tracking this for at least the next few games to see if any big trends emerge.
Iowa returns to action next Thursday, February 18th at home against Penn State. The start time and television/streaming options for the game are not currently available. Penn State is 8-8 on the season, and 5-7 in the Big Ten.