In last night’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win against Rutgers, Iowa largely won the game with defense. Sure, Gabbie Marshall, Caitlin Clark, and Monika Czinano all had big games on offense, but it was Iowa’s defense that got Rutgers out of rhythm early. It was Iowa’s defense that kept Rutgers visibly frustrated throughout the game. And it was Iowa’s defense that earned key stops down the stretch as Rutgers made a final run.
At the beginning of today’s semifinal matchup against Michigan State, good defense was nowhere to be seen for both teams. They both shot well over 50% from the floor, and played at a fast pace. A Marshall basket with less than 40 seconds to go in the quarter tied the game at 24, and that’s where it stayed until quarter’s end.
The second quarter was back and forth. Michigan State led by as many as three, before Iowa went on a run and took a 4-point lead. The Spartans battled back and hit a three with two seconds to play in the half to go up two. But just as the basket went through, a Michigan State player fouled McKenna Warnock. Warnock went to the line and hit 1/2 free throws, and the half ended with Michigan State leading 41-40.
The third quarter was also back and forth. Iowa briefly took a 6-point lead, but Michigan State battled back and cut that to one. The Hawkeyes took the advantage back, and in the closing seconds of the quarter led by four with the ball in Clark’s hands.
Clark had struggled through most of three quarters. Her threes weren’t falling, and her drives to the basket were often barely rimming out. But despite those struggles, Clark stepped back and buried her first three of the day to push Iowa’s lead to seven heading to the fourth quarter.
In the early fourth quarter, Iowa’s defense finally succeeded in forcing Michigan State into bad shots and turnovers. Even better, the Spartans started to miss on most of their shots. Starting just before the 8-minute mark in the quarter, that defensive effort helped Iowa go on an 11-0 run capped by two Clark threes that pushed the lead to 15. Michigan State cut that as low as eight with four minutes to play, but Iowa’s defense held strong again, and the Hawks went on to win by a comfortable margin at 87-72.
Czinano led Iowa with 27 points and six rebounds. She continues to be a nearly unstoppable offensive force in this tournament. Clark had 20 points and 11 assists, but was just 6/21 from the floor. Hopefully her shooting finally rebounds tomorrow. Warnock had her biggest game of the conference tournament with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. She does a lot of the dirty work for this Iowa team, and was particularly impactful today. A box score for the game is here.
Most people didn’t project Iowa to advance to the Big Ten Tournament championship game when the tournament bracket was released. Michigan State beating Indiana certainly made Iowa’s path easier, but the team has also grown as the season has gone on.
For most of the year, Iowa has played ranked opponents tough, then managed to lose a close game late, due primarily to its defense not being able to get enough stops in crunch time. But as the season has gone on, and excluding Iowa’s game at Maryland, the defense has gotten better. This week, Iowa has had close games in the fourth quarter against Purdue, Rutgers, and Michigan State. Each of those teams at one point or another made a run in the fourth quarter to draw the game relatively close. And each time after those runs, Iowa buckled down on defense to force stops to put the game away. Iowa’s defense still isn’t great, but it’s good enough now to win the games Iowa had been losing for most of the season.
Iowa is also winning in different ways. Against Purdue, Iowa’s three-point shooting was way off, but Czinano stepped up with a career high. Against Rutgers, Gabbie Marshall, the team’s fourth or fifth best scoring option, had a huge first half, and Iowa’s defense caused disruptions. Finally against Michigan State Iowa’s offense started hot, then kept scoring enough throughout to win by a good margin despite Clark’s shots not falling.
I’m not sure if there will be another Top 25 poll the rest of the season, but Iowa is certainly playing like a Top 25 team right now. Actually, this season is starting to remind me of the 2017-2018 season (Gustafson’s junior year when Iowa earned a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but lost in the first round). That year it became clear that Gustafson was one of the best players in the country. That Iowa had a bunch of good players around her. But that team was young, and was one season of development away from being great.
Clark is already one of the best players in the country. It’s taken some time, but right now it’s clear that she’s surrounded by some very good players, particularly on the offensive end. The team is also young, with two freshman, four sophomores, and two juniors in the primary rotation. If those players continue to grow and develop chemistry together, it could be a very, very fun next few seasons.
Iowa returns to action at 1 PM Central tomorrow (Saturday) on ESPNU against #7 Maryland. The Terps struggled in their first game of the conference tournament, before blowing out Northwestern in the semifinal. They also beat Iowa 111-93 a few weeks ago in College Park. It’s safe to say Iowa will be the underdog in this one, but as the last three days have shown, anything can happen in March.