March 30, 2024 

Sellout crowd gathers to see Iowa and Caitlin Clark do what they always do

Hawkeyes can avenge last season, reach Final Four with one more win

ALBANY, N.Y. — A sold-out arena, armies of black shirts and jerseys emblazoned with “22”, and thousands of people on hand to watch Caitlin Clark do what Caitlin Clark does. A single section for the Colorado faithful. That was the challenge facing Jaylyn Sherrod and the Buffaloes Saturday afternoon, one that was ultimately far too great for Colorado, with Iowa winning, 89-68.

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Colorado head coach JR Payne threw a number of defensive looks at Clark early on, but didn’t find one that really slowed her down. Doubles, traps, even sending big Aaronette Vonleh out at Clark on a 3-point attempt — none of it seemed to upset her timing much.

“Helpless might be the right word, only because we were trying so many different things and nothing really seemed to stem the tide,” Payne said at her postgame press conference.

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Clark scored on a layup before the game was 30 seconds old, but scoring was hardly all she did. Clark found her teammates via dribble drives, or her patented laser beam passes that originate from anywhere on the court and hit other Hawkeyes in the hands, leading to easy points for the nation’s most efficient offense.

A Colorado team that began the season by routing LSU and reached its second straight Sweet 16 presented a challenge in its own right for Iowa. But the Buffaloes never seemed to threaten in this one after Iowa went up by double digits early.

“I thought it was great,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said of the early run. “It didn’t feel like — when you said it wasn’t competitive, it felt to me like it was … I think we set the tone early in both of the halves. I think it was really important.”

It was Iowa’s defense that added to the task for Colorado on Saturday, with the Hawkeyes holding the Buffaloes to just 30% shooting in the first quarter and 0-for-6 from deep. Those who came to see Clark ‘the shooter’ and Clark ‘the distributor’ also were treated to a Clark blocked shot in the opening quarter, which ended with Iowa ahead, 22-14.

“I thought our three-point defense was really good,” Bluder said. “We didn’t want to let them get on a roll in the three-pointers… I think Gabbie [Marshall] is such a good defensive player, and people don’t give her enough credit for that. There are games she’ll not score a single point for us and just come up with key play after key play. I thought we were physical. I thought we did a really good job communicating on defense tonight.”

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Colorado started to find its offensive rhythm ahead of halftime, cutting the deficit to as little as eight. But the Clark-powered offense simply could not be slowed, even worse when given a head start. By the half, Clark had 15 points and eight assists, and the Hawkeyes, shooting 61%, led 48-35.

This Iowa team knows how to step on the gas, too. A 6-0 spurt, on a pair of Clark assists, expanded the Hawkeye advantage to 19, 54-35, and led to a timeout from Colorado 75 seconds into the third.

“That’s what we talked about in the locker room at halftime, is really come out and dominate that third quarter from the start and that’s exactly what we did, we forced them to use a timeout,” Clark said following the game. “I thought we just really controlled the game. Once we got that lead, we were able to sustain it. Even when they went on a few runs, we were able to switch up our player defense, our zone defense. I thought that caused them a few problems.”

The plays all run together, yet each brings a unique thrill to the assembled masses. They are the same thing Clark’s been doing for four years, yet the plays manage to retain their novelty, with a degree of consistency and totality that feels entirely unique. A pass in rhythm to Affolter for an and-1 finish, a three from Kate Martin on a pass Clark’s been throwing to her since the fall of 2020. The slice of Colorado black and gold in the arena was silent as the rest of the crowd settled comfortably into the familiar show it had seen dozens of times.

Clark’s precision is what makes stopping her, and Iowa, impossible. Sometimes, as in last season’s national title game, the Hawkeyes can be outscored. On an afternoon they are playing defense at this level? There’s not a path to victory. By the time Clark exited in the final moments of the third quarter, Iowa led by 21, and the drama had given way to dreams of Cleveland, now just one win away. Each time Clark left the game in the fourth quarter, too, the crowd treated it like the last time they’d get to cheer for her, even for those who were treated to the privilege of watching her play for the very first time.

On Friday, Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder acknowledged that duality, that remarkable is the norm around those parts.

“I don’t know if she could give us any more wow moments,” Bluder said Friday. “She’s given us so many over the last four years. Whether it’s shooting incredible shots, passing the ball like no other. I’m not sure she could do anything yet that we haven’t seen.”

And yet: they keep coming.

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On Monday night in Albany, Clark and the Hawkeyes will attempt to avenge last season’s title game loss to LSU and reach a second straight Final Four, all in one victory. The defense Iowa played on Saturday gives them a chance to beat the Tigers. The defense that allowed 102 points in the title game last season won’t be good enough.

Bluder wondered whether the game would eclipse the record-setting audience of last season’s title game — a real possibility, if only ABC would broadcast the Elite Eight instead of ESPN.

And Payne, now a spectator after facing both teams this year, is like the rest of America. She’ll be watching.

“Oh, sure, I think everybody that loves the game of basketball will be tuned into that matchup,” Payne said. “I think it’ll be a great game, two of the best teams in the country. Excited that we got a chance to play both this year because I also think we’re one of the best teams in the country. So yeah, we’ll be tuned in.”

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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