April 2, 2024 

Caitlin Clark stays in the moment, leads Iowa back to Final Four

Hawkeyes get revenge on LSU, punch ticket to Cleveland

ALBANY, N.Y. — On the eve of the anniversary of last season’s epic national championship game that shattered viewership records and helped propel women’s basketball into the national media spotlight, the stage was set for a rematch — this time in the Elite Eight.

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Iowa vs. LSU. Caitlin Clark vs. Angel Reese. Lisa Bluder vs. Kim Mulkey. A full MVP Arena in Albany and millions of viewers tuned in to witness the next iteration of what was many casual observers around the country saw as the premier rivalry in women’s basketball.

For Bluder and her Hawkeyes team, however, the only game that mattered hadn’t yet been played.

“We didn’t talk about last year’s game at all. We did not talk about it at all. It just wasn’t important to us. That was last year — different teams, different scenario,” Bluder said. “We just kept focusing on this time we get to play. We get to play today. We focused on ourselves. I told the team, this is not a rivalry. This is a competition. It’s a competition against an opponent.”

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Call it what you’d like, the matchup delivered on the hype — and this time, it’s safe to say that the overwhelmingly pro-Iowa crowd delighted. This time, it was the Hawkeyes getting the 94-87 win.

The first half was an offensive clinic between two of the country’s elite. The Hawkeyes jumped out to an early nine-point lead fueled by hot shooting out of the gates from Clark and Hawkeye fifth-year guard Kate Martin. The teams traded baskets until the 3:29 mark of the first quarter, at which point LSU exploded into a 10-0 run against eight empty Iowa possessions, four of which ended in turnovers. Even after leading by nine at one point, Iowa finish the first quarter down 31-26.

The second quarter was highlighted by an 11-4 Iowa run featuring key contributions from Iowa forward Sydney Affolter, who stepped in confidently for starter Hannah Stuelke after she picked up a second foul. Clark scored another eight points and LSU guards Flau’jae Johnson and Hailey Van Lith combined for 11 on the quarter. The teams went into the locker room all tied up at 45.

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“We always tell our players — basketball is usually a game of momentum swings. You’ve got to make yours ride as long as you can and hang on during theirs,” Bluder said. “They had a really good momentum swing there in the second quarter. They had a really nice momentum swing … then we ended up being tied, and we just went in there and said, hey, we’ve got 20 more minutes. They were very locked in at halftime. There was a lot of belief in that locker room. There really was.”

The third quarter was when Iowa took over the game. Clark, who got most of her points in the first half driving to the rim, dazzled the crowd by sinking four 3-pointers (12 points) and dishing out three assists. She didn’t turn the ball over once. Iowa outscored LSU 24-13 in the game’s third frame.

“I was really happy in the first quarter [Caitlin] got to the rim quite a bit and got off ball screens,” Bluder said. “We encouraged her to do that because we didn’t want her to start out with the logo threes. We thought she could get to the rim, and we wanted the higher percentage shots to begin with. I was pretty happy that she did that.”

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates after beating LSU in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament between Iowa and LSU at MVP Arena, Monday, April 1, 2024 in Albany, N.Y. (Photo Credit | Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Stathead Stat of the Week

With the WNBA Draft in the books, here’s the list of the best rookie seasons by a No. 1 pick, by win shares:

1. Candace Parker, 2008 – 7.7
2. Aliyah Boston, 2023 – 6.0
3. Nneka Ogwumike, 2012 – 5.9

Stathead is your all-access pass to the Basketball and College Basketball Reference databases. Our discovery tools are built for women’s basketball fans like you. Answer your questions in a matter of seconds.

Although they outscored Iowa in the final quarter, LSU never regained the lead for the remainder of the game. As she usually does, Clark played the role of greatest show-woman — ending the game with 41 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds — but her supporting cast shined as well.

Affolter, who was named to the All-Tournament team, chipped in 16 points on 50% shooting from the field. Kate Martin contributed 21 points, six rebounds and two steals. Gabbie Marshall played the entire 40 minutes and played lockdown defense, disrupting LSU’s perimeter play all night.

“Caitlin Clark is not going to beat you by herself,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said. “It’s what she does to make those other teammates better that helps her score points and them score points to beat you.”

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Clark’s Cleveland curtain call

Last week, USA Basketball announced that Clark was invited to participate the national team’s mini-camp next weekend in Cleveland — but that she’d only be participating if Iowa got knocked out through the NCAA Tournament. So Clark was going to Cleveland no matter what, but now she’ll be on the court in the Final Four again, playing out the final weekend of her college career.

Although Clark hopes to one day be on the Olympic team, competing with the Hawkeyes is exactly where she wants to be.

“The Olympics are always your dream, but to be here with this team and to be able to do what we’ve done and to extend that out another week is all I could have really asked,” Clark said. “That’s all I wanted is to win this game tonight and be going back to Cleveland with the people I love and get to play for Iowa that’s across my chest every single time.”

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) speaks with reporters in the locker room after beating LSU in the Elite 8round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament between Iowa and LSU at MVP Arena, Monday, April 1, 2024 in Albany, N.Y. (Photo Credit | Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK)

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During this entire NCAA Tournament, Clark has been under one of the brightest spotlights imaginable. Media has spent hours rehashing last season’s championship game, discussing the shattered NCAA records that Clark left in her wake and debating where the legendary Iowan sits on the list of greatest collegiate players.

Through it all, Clark has demonstrated an incredible ability to remain in the present. She will go on to the WNBA, will no doubt be invited to future national team try-outs and represent her country in the Olympics. She may even break some more records along the way.

But for the next six days, from now until Sunday, Clark has just two simple goals: to soak up the final precious moments of her collegiate career alongside her best friends and teammates … and, along with those teammates, compete for a national championship.

“My focus is 100 percent on making Iowa really good, and not really too focused on all that other stuff,” Clark said. “I know that’ll be there when my career ends, and hopefully that’s with a win.”

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Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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