For the last 30 years, UConn has been the gold standard in women’s basketball. Under head coach Geno Auriemma the Huskies have won 11 NCAA Championships and have gone to an additional 9 Final Fours. They are one of the top teams in the country virtually every year.
When Caitlin Clark came to Iowa, she said he wanted to take the Iowa program back to a Final Four. To reach heights that the Hawkeyes haven’t seen in decades.
Today was the first test. As a 5-seed with a young team, Iowa didn’t necessarily expect to make a deep tournament run this year. But today’s game against UConn was a chance to see how they matched up against one of the nation’s best. To see the level the team would need to play at to make a Final Four someday.
Both teams started off the game sloppy with turnovers and missed shots. When they finally got things going, UConn got the better of the action on both ends due to its size. Iowa didn’t have an answer inside for UConn’s bigs both in stopping their scoring and in securing rebounds. And offensively, the UConn forwards made scoring inside very difficult.
But despite those challenges, and despite Clark being cold from deep in the first quarter, UConn led just 22-18 at the end of the quarter. Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall picked up their scoring in Clark’s absence, with five and six points, respectively.
In the second quarter, UConn got rolling. The Huskies continued to dominate inside, but also started to hit more shots from three. And when the UConn shots weren’t falling, they often grabbed offensive rebounds to get another chance. On the other end, Iowa’s supporting cast continued to do well, but Clark continued to be cold from the floor. The result was a 49-35 UConn halftime lead. Marshall led Iowa at halftime with nine points, while McKenna Warnock had eight points.
The third quarter was back and forth. Iowa came out fighting and briefly cut UConn’s lead to eight. UConn then went on a run and got the lead to a game-high 15. Then Clark got her offense going a bit and cut the lead back to eight and had a couple shots to cut it further, but didn’t convert. UConn got momentum back in the last few minutes of the quarter, and led 72-61 heading to the final quarter.
The start of the 4th quarter continued to be a back-and-forth battle. Iowa cut the lead back to nine on multiple occasions, but UConn always seemed to have an offensive answer. Finally in the middle of the quarter Iowa’s shots stopped falling, and UConn extended its lead. The Huskies ultimately won 92-72.
Clark led Iowa with 21 points and 5 assists, though she shot just 7-21 from the floor. Warnock had a fantastic game, scoring 20 points and grabbing 5 boards. Czinano was typically efficient inside scoring 14 on 7-11 shooting. Marshall was the final Hawkeye in double-figures with 12. A box score for the game is here.
This was a tough game for Clark. UConn did a good job of forcing her into tough shots, and she didn’t hit them at the rate she normally does. Iowa was always going to need a great Clark shooting effort, and it didn’t get that today. That doesn’t mean that she isn’t a fantastic player. She most certainly is.
Though Clark wasn’t at her best, the rest of Iowa’s starters did very well. Warnock showed her offensive best, scoring 20 points while taking just 9 shots. She’s an offensive weapon that Iowa needs to utilize more next year. Despite playing taller, more athletic players the entire game, Czinano had another efficient scoring game in the paint. Marshall didn’t shoot a lot, but she was money when she did. And Martin had an impact passing, rebounding, and on defense.
Probably the biggest factor in the outcome of today’s game was UConn’s size. Offensively, Iowa’s defense had no answer when UConn’s bigs got the ball in the low post. Or if Iowa forced UConn into a miss, the UConn bigs grabbed a ton of the offensive rebounds to earn a second chance. And on defense, the UConn bigs challenged every shot Iowa took inside, and cleaned up most of Iowa’s misses.
Today’s game didn’t go the way Iowa wanted, but that shouldn’t take away from what has been a great season. At the beginning of the year, Iowa wasn’t projected to even make the NCAA Tournament. I don’t believe the Hawks ever made the Top 25 of the AP Poll. But despite that, they made a run to the Big Ten Tournament final. They blew out their competition on a run to the Sweet 16. And they did it all without a senior in the regular rotation.
A Bright Future
Iowa should return every player from its regular rotation never year. And the only two juniors who are part of that rotation—Czinano and Taiwo—can come back for an additional year if they choose because of the NCAA's decision to grant winter sports athletes a free year of eligibility. The core of this Iowa team could well have two more chances at the Big Ten and at a deep NCAA Tournament run.
On top of that, Iowa has a good recruiting class coming in which should add quality players on the interior and on the wing. If that group hits the ground running, not only will Iowa’s regular rotation be better and more experienced, it should also provide them with more depth up and down the lineup. Depth like that was missing, particularly on the interior, in today’s game.
Iowa has now made two consecutive Sweet 16s, and it would’ve been favored to do so last year if the Tournament had been played. The goal now is to turn that into the standard at Iowa rather than a nice surprise. But congratulations to Iowa on this year's run -- this was a very fun team to watch all season long.