April 6, 2024 

For Iowa’s Hannah Stuelke, ‘confidence is everything’ in Final Four win

Lisa Bluder: 'We just kept telling her how good she was'

CLEVELAND — Even in a season where she had scored 47 points in a single game, Friday’s 71-69 victory by Iowa over Connecticut, lifting the Hawkeyes to their second consecutive national championship game, will be known as “The Hannah Stuelke Game.”

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After all, on a night when the relentless defense of UConn guard Nika Mühl limited Iowa star Caitlin Clark to 21 points on 18 shots, Stuelke managed to post 23 on just 12 shots. She outplayed UConn big Aaliyah Edwards, who will hear her name selected early in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

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Postgame, the self-effacing Stuelke half-joked that simply hearing “Caitlin Clark talk about me like that, it gives me a confidence boost.” But after her performance Friday night — to be sure, part of a team effort, the underrated recipe to Iowa’s success amid Clark’s stratospheric fame — it is time to stop wondering how the Hawkeyes will survive in the post-Clark era next season.

“We just kept telling her how good she was,” Lisa Bluder, the Hawkeyes’ hoarse, beaming head coach, said of Stuelke following the win. “Honestly, the only thing that stopped her from being great was her own self. It was her own doubt. And she is a beautiful athlete, an explosive athlete, and she just held herself back. And so we’re trying to talk to her about positive self-talk instead of negative self-talk, and kept pouring into her about, you can do this. You can be such a beast if you want to be.”

Stuelke scored 47 points on 20 shots back on Feb. 8 against Penn State and had seven other bursts of 20-plus points in a game this season. But it still required a further push from Bluder and the Iowa staff to remind her that no one outclasses her. They reinforced that lesson at the first media timeout, when UConn led 13-7.

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“We felt like when we got our first foul on Aaliyah, we had to go at her,” Bluder said. “She’s such a good player. I always tell the team the easiest way to guard somebody is to put them on the bench. I thought we did a good job of [isolating] her and letting Hannah draw another foul.”

The result didn’t just put Edwards on her heels for much of the game; it also gave Iowa another element of offensive firepower during a first half in which its customary 3-pointers weren’t falling. (Iowa was shooting 3-for-14 at the half.) But Stuelke already had eight points, and for Iowa, there was a reasonable belief that Clark wouldn’t miss all of her 3-pointers in the second half.

“[The] first half was a little rough for us, but we really kept believing, and I’m just so proud of the character of these young women to maintain their composure through some pretty tough times in the first half,” Bluder said. “And we got it to within six at halftime and we felt good about that.”

Iowa forward Hannah Stuelke smiles and raises her left hand to wave to the crowd.
Iowa forward Hannah Stuelke waves to the crowd following a win over Connecticut in the Final Four at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Stuelke simply did not stop attacking. And for Bluder, the mixed rotation of bigs she threw at LSU and Angel Reese in the Elite Eight gave way to 37:38 of playing time for Stuelke in the Final Four. That’s a mature workload from a player Bluder pointed out is “a sophomore, a young sophomore.”

The latter half of the third quarter belonged to Stuelke. She attacked the rim, drew a foul on Huskies forward Ice Brady, and hit her free throws, finishing 5-for-7 from the line. She wisely kicked out a pass to Clark, assisting her celebrated teammate on just her second three of the game. Stuelke’s layup tied it at 45, and her next free throws gave Iowa the lead.

Stuelke finished with 11 in the quarter, and by the fourth, the rest of the Iowa offense resumed doing Iowa things, just enough of them to secure the win against a defense Clark said was one of the toughest the Hawkeyes had faced.

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“I think Hannah’s tremendous,” Clark said. “I think it’s just the confidence and belief. I think tonight she played with an energy about herself of she really could go in there and dominate. She goes toe-to-toe with Aaliyah Edwards, who in my mind is one of the best players in the country. It was physical with her. Guarded her well. Boxed her out. And she wasn’t afraid to take it at her either, I thought.

“When they subbed in some post players off the bench, Hannah continued to go at them. And I’m just super happy for Hannah. She’s worked so hard to be in this moment … I think this the Hannah we all know, just having that confidence within herself because we all have it in her.”

That drew Stuelke’s wry remark that if The Great Caitlin Clark herself thought so highly of her, she must be pretty good. But Clark is far from alone in that opinion, especially after Friday night.

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Written by Howard Megdal

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

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