Getting to the Sweet 16 is hard. The Iowa men’s basketball team learned that lesson yesterday. Coach Lisa Bluder has also learned that lesson throughout her coaching career—in her now 21 seasons as the head coach at Iowa, she has made the Sweet 16 only twice (though last year’s team might have been the third if COVID-19 hadn’t cancelled the NCAA Tournament).
Given how hard it is to reach the Sweet 16, and how much Iowa had to replace coming into this season, most didn’t give this Iowa team much of a chance of reaching the Sweet 16. But despite that, the Hawks looked great to end the season, then won their first round NCAA Tournament game in convincing fashion. The Sweet 16 was one good game away.
Iowa started the game about as well as they possibly could have. A good Hawkeye defense forced Kentucky into eight consecutive misses to start the game, and boxed out well to secure the rebounds. Offensively, Iowa was able to get to the basket and converted most of their shots when they got there. Iowa used that to jump out to an 11-0 lead.
Kentucky finally got their offense going in the latter half of the quarter, but Iowa continued to score and led 23-11 after one. Clark had 11 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists after the first quarter.
As well as the first quarter went, somehow the second quarter went even better. Iowa’s defense continued to force miss after miss, and they rebounded most of those missed shots. Offensively, Clark continued to dominate, and her teammates filled in whenever she wasn’t shooting. Iowa quickly pushed its lead to 20, then even further. The Hawkeyes led 49-22 at the half. Clark had 24 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists at the break.
In the third quarter Kentucky finally started to make it a game. The Wildcats started hitting more of their shots, and pressured Iowa into a few turnovers that gave them easy baskets. The Wildcats cut Iowa’s lead down to 16 and looked to have all the momentum. But McKenna Warnock stepped up and hit a big three-pointer that extended Iowa’s lead back to 19. Then Clark and Tomi Taiwo hit a pair of and-1s in the next few minutes, and Iowa regained control of the game. They led 70-46 after three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, Iowa went into cruise control. The Hawks made some sloppy mistakes, but continued to attack on offense and kept their lead high. Then the coaches put the reserves in for the final few minutes and the lead narrowed somewhat in garbage time. Iowa ultimately won 86-72 in a game that was more of a blowout than that final score indicates.
#qctimes Caitlin Clark with 33 points with a lay-up with 8:15 to play in Iowa's rout of Kentucky in NCAA tourney play. She has passed the previous Iowa single-game NCAA tourney mark of 32 set by Tangela Smith in a 1998 game vs UMass.— Steve Batterson (@sbatt79) March 23, 2021
As the above tweet indicates, Clark broke a school record for individual scoring in an NCAA Tournament game with 35 points. She also added 7 rebounds and 6 assists, and her 35 point performance is the highest in this year's tournament so far. Like Megan Gustafson before her it’s hard to describe how good she really is. You just have to watch and see for yourself. The miraculous thing about Clark’s season, though, is that she’s doing all this as a freshman. She can, and will, get better. What a player.
Monika Czinano added 14 points and 8 rebounds. Warnock was the final player in doubl -figures with 10 points and 8 rebounds. A box score for the game is here.
A Team Win
As great as Clark was today, everyone for Iowa chipped in to earn this statement victory. Kate Martin was assigned to guard Rhyne Howard, Kentucky’s multi-year All-American and one of the best offensive players in the country. Martin largely shut her down until the game was too out of reach to matter. Warnock hit a huge three when Kentucky was making a run and was solid on the glass as usual. Taiwo and Sharon Goodman came off the bench and did well on both ends of the court. Most of the headlines will be about Clark, but this was one of Iowa’s best team performances of the season. The players and coaches earned this Sweet 16 appearance.
A Special Season
Every season has memorable moments. Every season is memorable to players and coaches for one reason or another. But only a few seasons are truly special. As mentioned above, Coach Bluder had only been to the Sweet 16 twice before this season. Iowa as a program has only done so seven times, despite being coached for a time by one of the best coaches in history in C. Vivian Stringer. What Iowa accomplished today was special. And it will be remembered as such.
What makes this season truly special, though, is that it was far from a certainty. For much of the year, Iowa was projected as an 8-10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. For a while the Hawks could compete with, but not beat, Top 25 teams in the Big Ten. But despite those early results, the players and coaches continued to work. They continued to improve and gel on and off the court. And by season’s end, they made the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game and now they've made it into the Sweet 16.
As fun as this season has been, it’s hard not to get excited about the future. Every player in Iowa’s rotation is set to return next season. If the players choose to, every one of them could return the following year, too. And Iowa has a very good recruiting class coming. The future is looking very, very bright.
Iowa’s next game will be either Saturday, March 27th or Sunday, March 28th at a time TBD against 8-seed Syracuse or 1-seed UConn. With all due respect to the Orange, almost everyone in women’s college basketball wants to see UConn vs. Iowa. Freshman phenom Paige Bueckers versus freshman phenom Caitlin Clark is something ESPN would love to hype for the rest of the week.
If that matchup does happen, Iowa will be a heavy underdog. UConn is a very talented and deep team, and Bueckers is a very talented player. But no one expected Iowa to get to this point. And it’s March—anything can happen.
We'll provide an update in this post (and in the comments below) when the opponent, game time, and TV assignment are made for Iowa's Sweet 16 game.
ED. NOTE: The schedule is finally set -- Iowa will play UConn at 12 PM CT on Saturday, March 27. ABC will have television coverage.