Every team has that one opponent that they underachieve against. A team that they’re better than, but somehow always play close or even lose to. For Iowa football right now, it’s Purdue. For Iowa women’s basketball in the Caitlin Clark era, that opponent is Northwestern.
Last year, the Wildcats swept Iowa in both games of the regular season series. They also held Clark to the worst game of her college career. This year in Iowa City, Northwestern defeated Iowa 77-69 to hand the Hawkeyes their only conference loss.
But the fortunes of Iowa and Northwestern have diverged since that game three weeks ago. Iowa has won six games in a row since the Northwestern loss, and has looked as good as it has all year in the process. Northwestern, meanwhile, has won just one of its last five games, including a loss at home to the Penn State team that Iowa just beat by 28 earlier this week.
Would Northwestern continue to plague Iowa, or would the Hawkeyes find a way to break through?
The first quarter started about as poorly as it could offensively for Iowa. The Hawks missed a number of close shots around the baskets, and also saw open threes barely rim out. Even worse, Monika Czinano picked up two quick fouls and had to sit.
The Northwestern offense wasn’t doing much, but the Wildcats still built an early lead because Iowa just couldn’t score. Eventually Iowa made a couple baskets, but Northwestern still led 13-11 after one.
The second quarter didn’t start any better for Iowa. Without Czinano, the Iowa offense couldn’t score, and Northwestern found a little momentum, quickly taking an 8-point lead. Coach Bluder finally brought Czinano back in with two fouls, and Iowa’s offense started to improve. The Hawks got better looks at the basket, stopped turning it over as much, and began to cut into Northwestern’s lead. That lead got as low as one point, before Northwestern extended it back to three points at halftime, 31-28. Iowa beat Northwestern on the glass in the first half, but shot poorly and also had 13 turnovers.
Unfortunately, Iowa’s start to the third quarter was disastrous. The offense still couldn’t score, but Northwestern finally started to hit some open shots. The Wildcats used that combination to build a 44-32 lead before an Iowa timeout. Northwestern briefly pushed the lead to 14, before Iowa started to climb back into the game.
And strangely, Iowa started to get back into the game defensively. The Hawkeye defense started to lock in, and Northwestern didn’t score in the quarter’s final five minutes. Unfortunately, Iowa’s offense was far from great in that stretch, and the Hawks only clawed back to within five at 46-41.
The fourth quarter was crazy. Iowa quickly tied the game at 48-48. The Hawkeyes then took the lead at 53-50 and looked to have some momentum. But it was short-lived; Northwestern tied the game at 53, before Kate Martin hit an open 3 to put Iowa back up three points. Northwestern rallied back again and took the lead at 57-56.
Then Iowa seemed poised to take complete control of the game. Iowa went up three, and then Gabbie Marshall was fouled on a three-point shot. She made her first free throw, and Iowa went up four points. But as was the theme of the fourth quarter, Iowa couldn't truly seize control of the game. Marshall missed her next two free throws, and Iowa’s lead stayed at just four points.
Northwestern responded with a pair of baskets, the last of which came with 32 seconds left to tie the game at 61. Iowa bled clock and drew up a final shot for Caitlin Clark, but it rimmed out. Northwestern got the rebound and chaos ensued.
Northwestern chose to push the ball down the floor rather than calling timeout. That fooled Iowa completely. But it also fooled the clock operator, who momentarily stopped the clock. Northwestern got the ball to the basket and seemed to hit the game-winning shot, but on review, the officials determined that the clock would have run out if the clock had kept going. The basket was called off and game remained tied. Iowa had new life.
In the overtime, both teams looked completely out of gas. Both Iowa and Northwestern turned the ball over or missed shots at an alarming rate. With a minute to go, Northwestern held a narrow 64-63 lead. To that point in the overtime, Caitlin Clark had been horrible. She had multiple turnovers and multiple missed shots. Again she shot the ball, this time on a step-back three. She freaking nailed it.
On the other end, Iowa finally got a stop and cleared the rebound. Czinano passed to Clark, who got fouled and hit two free throws. Iowa got another stop, cleared the rebound again, and mercifully closed out the game with a victory. The Hawks ended up winning 72-67.
Clark led Iowa with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists. But she also had 11 turnovers, and shot just 8-22 from the field. Even with such a poor performance, Clark took and hit one of the biggest shots of the season to give Iowa the lead back with a minute left in overtime.
Monika Czinano was huge in the game, scoring 24 points and grabbing 16 huge rebounds. Clark and Czinano were the only two Hawkeyes in double-figures. Iowa ended the game with an incredible 25 turnovers, but the Hawks also won the rebounding battle by 17. A box score for the game is here.
Caitlin Clark is a BALLER— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 29, 2022
She is the first Division I player with 250 points, 50 rebounds and 50 assists in a month since Kemba Walker in March 2011.
No D-I women's player has put up a 250-50-50 month over the last 20 seasons. pic.twitter.com/MCcQjMi6eN
A Season-Altering Victory
It’s hard to overstate how big that win was for Iowa. Northwestern has been Iowa’s boogeyman. They play better defense against Iowa than any other team in the nation. Down 14 in the third quarter, Iowa looked dead in the water. Instead, Iowa battled back, and overcame adversity countless times to earn a hard-fought victory on the road.
A loss in this game, would’ve been devastating for Iowa’s conference aspirations. The Hawks would’ve been two losses behind Indiana and one loss behind Michigan with five (or even six) games remaining against the conference’s four other best teams. I don’t think Iowa could’ve won the conference with that outcome.
A loss also would have harmed Iowa’s NCAA Tournament resume. Northwestern’s recent run of form has taken it out of the NCAA Tournament picture, at least for now. Two losses to a non-tournament team would’ve been another black mark on Iowa’s already relatively thin resume.
Winning with Defense?
Northwestern is far from a good offensive team, but as we know, Iowa was the worst defensive team in the country last year. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Iowa was able to hold Northwestern scoreless for long stretches in the third quarter, fourth quarter, and overtime.
The big change for Iowa came when Coach Bluder decided to go small. McKenna Warnock looked hurt for much of the game, and Coach Bluder finally subbed her out in favor of Tomi Taiwo and Kylie Feuerbach. Coach Bluder then had Taiwo or Gabbie Marshall face-guard Northwestern’s star Veronica Burton, and both did a great job. It was encouraging to see such focus and effort defensively from the team when things were going poorly offensively.
Iowa returns to action this Monday, January 31 at 8 PM CT at home against current #22 Ohio State. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
The Buckeyes are much like Iowa last year. They are an offense-focused team that shoots threes extremely well. But they also aren’t great defensively. They're 15-4 on the season and 7-3 in the Big Ten.
Those Big Ten games especially have seen both highs and lows. Their biggest high was a 6-point victory at home against Maryland. For the lows, they have two 19-point losses to Michigan and a 20-point loss to Indiana.
My only prediction for this one is plenty of offense.