April 3, 2024 

Why did Kim Mulkey keep Hailey Van Lith on Caitlin Clark?

The LSU coach stuck to her gameplan. It didn’t work.

ALBANY, N.Y. — LSU is one of the more talented teams in women’s college basketball history, and since the calendar turned to March, its best perimeter player on both ends of the floor has been wing Flau’jae Johnson. So why wasn’t she guarding Caitlin Clark?

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Johnson defended Clark for only five possessions during the Tigers’ 94-87 loss to Iowa in the Albany 2 Regional final, a game that was less competitive down the stretch than its final score would suggest. The Hawkeyes nailed several parts of their gameplan, including physically denying LSU bigs Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow from getting to their preferred spots on the court and shutting down the Tigers’ ball-movement. But the biggest factor was Caitlin Clark having one of the most impressive performances of her career.

Clark finished with 41 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists, a block and two steals on 63.9% true-shooting, just the second time since 2003 that a player has put up 40 points and 10 assists on 60% true-shooting in an NCAA Tournament game, per Stathead — both by Caitlin Clark, both in the Elite Eight, both against Hailey Van Lith’s team. The first was a triple-double last year against Louisville, a game that gave Van Lith a front row seat to watch Clark destroy better wing defenders in Mykasa Robinson and Morgan Jones. Cardinals head coach Jeff Walz, widely regarded as one of the best tournament game-planners in the sport, never turned to Van Lith for that assignment.

The expectation coming into Monday was that the Clark defensive assignment would go to Flau’jae Johnson, who had been the primary defender holding UCLA point guard Kiki Rice to 5-for-13 shooting with five turnovers in the Sweet Sixteen. Instead, LSU head coach Kim Mulkey tabbed Van Lith with that responsibility. This was a surprise to many, even Clark.

“Coming into this game, I did expect [Johnson] to guard me,” Clark said following the game. “But at the same time, every team we play throws multiple defenders at us. I don’t see one person for 40 minutes. And that’s what they did. … But also you don’t want some of your best players to get in foul trouble. So I don’t know if that was the reasoning behind it. But coming into this game, I think that’s what I was more prepared for.”

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Keeping Johnson out of foul trouble or fresher on the offensive end are the only explanations for Mulkey’s decision, because it came with disastrous results: When Van Lith, who stands a full five inches shorter than Clark and is not as athletic as Johnson, was defending Clark, the Iowa star shot 10-for-18 with six 3-pointers, plus four assists and another pass that led directly to Hawkeye free-throws. The only times Clark missed a 2-pointer while Van Lith was her defender were due to help defense from Reese and Johnson.

“Caitlin is very skilled, she’s a great player. She hit some tough shots,” said Van Lith. “There’s not a whole lot you can do about some of the threes she hit.”

Van Lith’s backup, Last-Tear Poa, fared a bit better on paper: Clark shot 4-for-12 with four assists against one turnover while Poa was defending her. But that shooting line includes several open transition 3-pointers that she missed, so it’s hard to say Poa did a much better job than Van Lith.

Johnson guarded Clark just once in the game’s first 26 minutes, a possession which ended in Van Lith giving up a back cut to Kate Martin. Johnson then guarded Clark five times across the final 14 minutes. Clark shot 0-for-2 against her, with one assist, one turnover and one pass to reset the Hawkeye offense. Johnson was arguably the most athletic player on the court and sported an impressive wingspan, both of which gave Clark a bit of trouble even though the game was solidly in Iowa’s hands by that point.

“I think my length kind of bothered her; I’m aggressive,” said Johnson. “I just wasn’t scared. When you play a player like that, you’ve got to look them in the eyes and really take on that challenge. [I] just tried to force her to her left. I know she wanted to step back, and my length can bother her a little bit …”

The question of who was guarding Clark was not the only thing that gave LSU trouble. Mulkey’s opening gameplan called for the Tigers’ point of attack defenders to go under ball screens set for Clark, and for the screener’s defender to stay in drop. In a “pick your poison” defensive approach, drop coverage with the under takes away Clark’s ability to hit the roller or get to the rim, but leaves the pull-up jumpers wide open. If she had been cold from beyond the arc, LSU would have won.

But Clark was not cold from beyond the arc. She hit a pull-up 3-pointer almost immediately to start the game when Van Lith went under a ball screen, then hit a pull-up three in her next pick-n-roll rep when Poa went under. So the Tigers scrapped that gameplan and chased over 12 of the next 13 times Clark came off a screen.

“There’s not a lot of strategy [to defending Clark],” Mulkey said. “You’ve got to guard her, [but] nobody else seems to be able to guard her. We didn’t even guard her last year when we beat them [in the national championship]. She’s just a generational player, and she just makes everybody around her better. That’s what the great ones do.”

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All the space LSU gave Clark to open the game let her get hot, and by the time the Tigers were chasing over, she was already in rhythm: Clark shot 3-for-3 from deep against overs, and her teammates shot 6-for-8 with three 3-pointers when she forced the defense into rotation and passed against that coverage.

Not that Clark needed the ball screens. She shot a ridiculous 9-for-18 in isolation, and when she forced a defensive rotation and passed, her teammates turned four of those six passes into points.

Why Mulkey continued to ask Van Lith to guard Clark even as the Iowa lead steadily increased into double-digits is a bit of a mystery. But between that decision and allowing Clark to get hot against unders, the Tigers sewed the seeds of their own destruction early.

On Friday, Clark will face a UConn team that does not have a defender of Johnson’s caliber, but which does have three high-level guard defenders in Nika Mühl, Paige Bueckers and freshman KK Arnold. Mühl will likely get the primary assignment on Clark, but the Huskies have been switching 1-through-4 lately, so Clark is sure to face all three at times. UConn will be hoping its talent can bother her a bit more than LSU’s did.

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Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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