#21 Iowa 104, #6 Michigan 80: Big Ten Champs

By BraydonRoberts5 on February 27, 2022 at 9:32 pm
Iowa won the second regular season Big Ten title of Coach Bluder's Iowa career
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Today the Iowa women’s basketball team played #6 Michigan for a share of the Big Ten regular season championship. I didn’t think this team would be here.

Before this season, I said that it would be a good season for Iowa if the Hawks finished in the Top 4 in the Big Ten regular season and made another Sweet 16. I never seriously considered discussion of a regular season Big Ten title. The Big Ten was returning three other teams that made the Sweet 16 last year mostly intact, and two of those teams (Maryland and Indiana) had serious Elite Eight or Final Four aspirations. Iowa competing for a Big Ten title seemed possible, but not particularly likely. I didn’t think the team would be here.

In the evening hours of December 21, it seemed like Iowa’s season was crashing down around it. At that point, the Hawks had gone through a Covid pause. They had lost big at Duke and had lost a tough one at rival Iowa State. And now they had just surrendered a 15-point fourth quarter lead in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and lost to IUPUI, a school most people had never heard of. At that point, it was fair to question if Iowa was even good enough to be ranked. I certainly didn’t think they would be here.

On January 6th, Iowa lost its second Big Ten game of the season at home to a not-great Northwestern team. The Hawks had lost both games to Northwestern last year, but that Northwestern team ended up as a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament and nearly knocked out the  2-seed. This year’s Northwestern team might miss the NCAA Tournament entirely. I still didn’t think Iowa would be here.

For most of the rest of January, things looked up. Iowa went on a 7-game winning streak, and finally looked like the team that finished the season strong last year. But none of those wins came against a ranked team. When the Hawkeyes finally did play one at home on January 31, they lost a close game against Ohio State after leading most of the way. But Ohio State was the lowest ranked of the other conference contenders. If Iowa couldn’t beat the Buckeyes at home, how would they beat the conference’s other top teams? I didn’t think this team would be here.

As recently as the night of February 14th, Iowa’s meager conference title hopes looked dead. That night, the Hawks played a shorthanded Maryland team at home and lost by 12 point. The Hawks made a rally late, but had been down by as many as 20 in the game. I didn’t think they would be here.

But then Iowa went on a run. In a little over 48 hours, Iowa twice defeated the previous conference leader in Indiana. Suddenly Iowa was tied in the loss column with Ohio State, Indiana, and Maryland, and the latter two wouldn’t play enough games to tie Iowa in the win column if Iowa won out. Even better, conference leader Michigan was just half a game in front of Iowa. If Iowa won out and beat the Wolverines, they would jump them too. For the first time all season, being here seemed not only possible, but likely.

Thursday’s game against Rutgers was far from pretty, but the Hawkeyes got the victory they needed. Now all that stood between Iowa and a conference title was a victory over the Wolverines. And in Iowa’s corner was a sold-out crowd at Carver Hawkeye Arena—the first sellout for women’s basketball since 1988. This team that had been down for most of the season made it here after all.

Most of the first quarter went poorly for Iowa. The Wolverines built a 23-12 lead thanks mostly to their offense. They have one of the best posts in the country in Naz Hillmon, and in an effort to combat her, Iowa was doubling the post. That left shooters open, Michigan found them, and they hit several threes early on. On the other end, Iowa was getting okay shots, but wasn’t hitting enough of them.

Finally in the last couple minutes Caitlin Clark and the Iowa offense came alive. Gabbie Marshall capped that stretch with an off-balance three at the buzzer, and Michigan’s lead was trimmed to 25-20 after the first quarter.

Iowa’s momentum carried over to the second quarter, and soon the game was tied at 34. Michigan’s shooters had cooled off, and Iowa was doing better defensively. And then Iowa went on a huge run to end the quarter. Iowa kept playing good defense and forced more stops. When they forced those stops, Clark and the team were able to get out in transition, and the transition offense was killing Michigan. Clark took over again in the final minutes, and a late Kylie Feuerbach three helped propel Iowa to a 53-39 halftime lead. Clark already had 20 points by halftime.

In the third quarter, Michigan quickly cut the Iowa lead down to single digits. Part of the Wolverines’ success was that their offense was scoring again. Iowa’s offense wasn’t quite as good when Michigan had time to get set on defense. Another issue was Iowa’s foul trouble. Monika Czinano, McKenna Warnock, and Addison O’Grady all battled foul issues in the quarter, requiring Coach Bluder to shuffle the lineup and go small at times.

But even though Michigan was able to cut Iowa’s lead to eight on multiple occasions, the Wolverines couldn’t get any closer. Because Caitlin Clark would come down and nail a big three just as Michigan was getting momentum.

And then at the end of the quarter, Iowa went on another big run. The Hawks strung a few stops together, got back in transition on offense again, and suddenly Iowa had the largest lead of the game at 76-59 heading to the fourth quarter.

In the early fourth quarter, Iowa buried a couple more threes, and the rout was officially on. The Hawks ultimately closed out a 104-80 victory to claim a share of the regular season Big Ten Title. What a team. What a ride.

Stats

In a season and career full of huge moments, Caitlin Clark somehow managed to shine brightest on the biggest stage possible. She scored 38 points on 8/11 shooting from three, dished 11 assists, added 6 rebounds, and had 3 steals. She also didn’t attempt a shot in the fourth quarter. And while those stats alone are insane, the shots she hit came at the biggest moments. First that was keeping Iowa in the game early. Then helping Iowa build a 14-point lead to end the half. Then quelling Michigan’s momentum in the third quarter. And finally to help Iowa get the blowout going.

I don’t know what the future holds for Clark and this Iowa team, but I can safely say that we are witnessing greatness. Some of the things Clark does in games just haven’t been done in women’s basketball before. And she just turned 20.

Monika Czinano scored 19 points on 9/11 shooting in just 24 minutes. When she caught the ball in the post, she was nearly unstoppable. Gabbie Marshall was the final Hawkeye in double-figures with 14 points. A box score for the game is here.

And while no other Hawkeye scored in double figures, each of Iowa’s other players contributed in some way. McKenna Warnock, Tomi Taiwo, and Kate Martin all made strong contributions defensively or on the glass. Kylie Feuerbach was huge in the second quarter, scoring all 7 of her points in that period, and grabbing a few rebounds to close out stops. And Addison O’Grady continues to step in and play beyond her experience level when Czinano is in foul trouble.

Journey Before Destination

One of the mantras of my favorite book series is journey before destination. Winning a Big Ten regular season title is awesome. It’s also rare. Megan Gustafson and the Elite Eight team from a few years ago didn’t win a regular season title. Coach Bluder has done so just one other time in her illustrious Iowa career.

But what makes this title all the better—to me—is just how much this Iowa team had to overcome to win it. As the opening of this article shows, there were many times throughout the season when Iowa could’ve given up. When the team could’ve folded under the adversity of bad games, controversial calls by referees, or just underperforming high preseason expectations. Instead, the team battled through, won big games late, and won the biggest game of them all on the biggest stage.

Regardless of what happens from here, we will remember this Big Ten championship team. And we will remember them not just for the title, but for the journey it took to get to this moment.

The Crowd

Today’s crowd at Carver was nothing short of spectacular. I had the privilege of being in Carver for the game today, and during Iowa’s best moments, it was as loud as I’ve ever heard it.

The crowd also seemed to help take the team’s play to another level. Clark in particular fed off the crowd as she hit tough shot after tough shot. Or she would try to rally the crowd to get louder just as Michigan was making a run.

Congratulations to the coaches and players for earning such a great environment. Now let’s repeat it more moving forward.

NCAA Tournament Update

In ESPN’s latest Bracketology (released before Iowa’s win over Michigan), the Hawks were projected as a 5 seed. Since then, several of the projected 4-seeds have lost, and Iowa has added a 24-point win over a projected 2-seed. Tomorrow the Selection Committee will release a list of its Top 16 teams. There is a decent chance that Iowa will be on it. Even if they aren't, the Hawks will have a chance to play their way into a top-4 seed at next week’s Big Ten Tournament. Hopefully they can earn a couple more home games in front of raucous Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowds.

Next Up

Iowa’s next game will be on Friday, March 4 at 5:30 PM CT (BTN) in the quarterfinal of the Big Ten Tournament. As the 2-seed (thanks to losing the tiebreaker with fellow champion Ohio State), Iowa will play the winner of 7-seed Northwestern and 10-seed Minnesota. The Hawks swept the Gophers in the regular season, but went 1-1 against Northwestern. 

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