Iowa authors 'resilient win' in Clark's home finale

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Caitlin Clark walked off the Carver-Hawkeye Arena court a winner for the last time Monday. But to do it, she and the Iowa Hawkeyes had to survive a nerve-wracking defensive battle and win the type of game they usually struggle with.

The highest-scoring team this season in Division I women’s basketball (92.8 PPG coming into Monday’s second-round game) had to fend off a West Virginia team that made Iowa work for every point it got. The Hawkeyes only scored one basket in the fourth quarter. But they’re still moving on to the Sweet 16, and Clark and her fellow seniors said goodbye to a building they’ve filled all season long.

Iowa, the No. 1 seed in the Albany 2 Region, beat No. 8 seed West Virginia 64-54. Clark had 32 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists in her final home game, and broke yet another record in her historic season. She now has 1,113 points, passing former Washington Huskies star Kelsey Plum for most points in a Division I season.

She already had broken Plum’s NCAA women’s career scoring record, Lynette Woodard’s major-college women’s record and Pete Maravich’s D-I overall record. But all the fanfare over her individual accolades wouldn’t have meant as much to Clark if things had ended badly Monday.

And it appeared that could happen for much of the game. Before Monday, the Hawkeyes were 3-8 in games where they scored under 70 points in Clark’s career. That included a 64-62 second-round loss to Creighton in 2022, Clark’s sophomore season. Iowa was a No. 2 seed then, and Creighton No. 10.

Clark said that upset was one of the greatest motivators of her career.

“I don’t think my career evolves in the way that it [did] if we don’t lose to Creighton,” Clark said. “I don’t think we go to the Final Four last year … I don’t think we win this game tonight. That was probably the lowest of lows in my career, and you’ve got to sit with that a whole other year until you get the opportunity to play Georgia at home.”

That NCAA second-round game last season against the Bulldogs was also very close; Iowa didn’t pull away until the final minute, winning 74-66. Monday was the third year in a row that hearts were pounding among the full house at Carver-Hawkeye for a second-round game.

“This is one of the hardest rounds in the NCAA tournament,” Clark said. Iowa’s rival Big Ten team, Ohio State, experienced that in an upset loss to Duke on Sunday. “Everyone is really good. You’re expected to win. You’re on your home court. You have all the pressure in the world. They have absolutely nothing to lose to come in here and upset us.”

Mark Kellogg, in his first season at West Virginia, had light-heartedly told his team and Mountaineer fans on Selection Sunday after seeing the bracket, “Let’s win one and then send Caitlin Clark packing.”

He had meant to just fire up his players, but it leaked out publicly. Kellogg said in Friday’s press conference before the first round that he fully respected Clark and Iowa, and meant nothing negative. But the reality was, his Mountaineers nearly did knock off the Hawkeyes.

“I’m so proud of our team, the resiliency — that’s kind of been our word all year,” said Kellogg, who took over for Dawn Plitzuweit, who stayed just one season at West Virginia before leaving for Minnesota.

“That defensive effort tonight was, I thought, tremendous and special. And to do some of the things statistically to that team — for as good as they are offensively — it was a credit to our players. Of course, wish we could have made a few more shots and made a few more plays.”

The Mountaineers held the Hawkeyes to just 6 points in the second quarter and 26 for the first half, both Iowa season-lows for a quarter and for a half. Iowa had just 7 assists for the game, the program’s lowest total in a victory since 2016. Iowa made only one field goal in the fourth quarter, but sank 14 free throws.

The large disparity in free throws stands out on the box score — Iowa was 25-of-30, and West Virginia 3-of-5 from the line — but reflected the style of play of both teams. Iowa was the more aggressive driving team, and the Mountaineers didn’t attack the heart of the Hawkeyes’ zone a lot, settling more for outside shots.

“I do think that was one of the better defensive teams we’ve seen all year,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I’m so proud of our team for only having six turnovers in the second half against that pressure defense. That’s keeping your composure, especially when they tied it up. We found a way to win in a different way, and we won with our defense tonight.”

Indeed, the Hawkeyes didn’t get rattled when the score was tied 52-52 with just over 2 minutes left. Junior guard Sydney Affolter got a 3-point play, which gave Iowa just enough breathing room to finish off the game.

Next up for Iowa is No. 5 seed Colorado, the same team the Hawkeyes faced last season in the Sweet 16. Iowa won that game 87-77 on its run to the Final Four.

Some of her fellow seniors had a few happy tears after Monday’s game, but Clark was all smiles. She did take a moment to revel in the atmosphere of the arena where she has been so beloved the past four seasons while having one of the greatest careers in college hoops history.

“I wish I could have stayed on court for a while and soaked it all in a little longer,” Clark said in Iowa’s locker room afterward. “But I don’t think that there’s a better way we could go out than just a gritty, resilient win. Honestly, it was almost the opposite of Iowa basketball in a way, but I think that’s what makes it that much sweeter. Our defense was really good, and people don’t always give our defense too much credit.

“That was the reason we won tonight. We didn’t make too many shots, but at this point all that matters is survive and advance, and that’s exactly what we did.”

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