March 27, 2023
90 starts, one Final Four: How Iowa’s starters got the Hawkeyes to Dallas
'You could get sick of each other after that many games, right? They honestly love each other.'
SEATTLE — After making two free throws with 22 seconds remaining, Caitlin Clark threw a big fist pump in the air as she subbed out to a standing ovation from of over 11,000 at Climate Pledge Arena. The Iowa star had just completed the 11th triple-double of her career and secured the Hawkeyes’ first Final Four berth in 30 years, defeating Louisville 97-83.
But Clark didn’t do it alone. In fact, it’s the Hawkeyes starting five’s longevity together that’s pushed them to this achievement.
On Sunday night, the lineup of Clark, Monika Czinano, Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock started their 90th game together of their career in the Elite Eight matchup against Louisville. That starting five consists of three 1,000 points scorers and 20 combined years of college basketball playing experience. This year alone, all of them have played at least 990 minutes on the floor, the majority of them together. To say those five Hawkeyes have been through the ringer together is an understatement.
“It means a lot, especially for all five of us,” Czinano said. “We’ve been working on our games collectively as a starting five for so long, working on our relationships with each other, just everything. But even more so off the court, I’m so thankful for every single person, not just the starting five. Everybody on our team deserves this. Everybody puts in the work. So there’s no other group I would rather go 90 games with, truly.”
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All five of them come from different states across the Midwest. All of them are upperclassmen, with Clark being the youngest as a junior. The group has gone through so much in their careers.
They’ve won one Big 10 regular season title and two Big 10 tournament titles. They’ve won 74 games over the past three seasons. However, they had struggled in the NCAA tournament, falling in Sweet Sixteen in 2021 and getting upset in the second round by Creighton last year, until finally getting the monkey off their back on Sunday.
Despite being the youngest, Clark is the star and it showed on against Louisville. She got her sixth triple-double of the season by scoring 41 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out 12 assists. She was responsible for 70 of Iowa’s 97 points on the night. She scored the Hawkeyes first seven points of the game and scored or assisted on Iowa’s first 11 baskets of the night. Her performance was the first ever 40-point triple-double in NCAA tournament history — men’s or women’s — and was the driving force behind her being named Most Outstanding Player of the Seattle 4 Regional.
Clark’s play is otherworldly at times. Everyone knows she can shoot and score from anywhere, but it’s her passing that really sets her apart. Louisville threw different looks at her all throughout the night, whether it was longer defenders, quicker defenders or even a box-and-one defense. It didn’t matter. She found teammates with ease, throwing one handed whip passes across the court to open teammates for threes or layups in transition. She even set a great flare screen to get Marshall open for a three when the Cardinal were playing their box-and-one defense. Her basketball IQ was on full display on Sunday night.
“It is like a storybook, but it’s kind of been like that for us all year long,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We keep talking about destiny and how it’s supposed to happen and it is happening. But I’m so happy for Caitlin. I can remember sitting in her living room and her saying, ‘I want to go to a Final Four.’ And I’m saying, ‘We can do it together.’ And she believed me. And so I’m very thankful for that. She is spectacular. I don’t know how else to describe what she does on the basketball court.
“A 40-point triple double against Louisville to go to the Final Four? Are you kidding? I mean, it’s mind-boggling.”
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After Clark, Czinano is the next biggest contributor to the Hawkeyes’ success. She had a big decision to make after the Hawkeyes loss to Creighton a year ago on whether to come back for a fifth year. However, it was no brainer for her to come back and help get this team to a place it hadn’t been in a long time. She struggled on Sunday night but put up at least 20 in the Hawkeyes Big Ten championship victory over Ohio State as well as in their first and second round matchups in the NCAA tournament.
Czinano was also the only one of the five with experience in the Elite Eight before Sunday, losing to Baylor in 2019. She has grown tremendously as a player over her career, playing with and learning from Megan Gustafson in her freshman year. Her ability to score inside without needing to dribble has turned her into an incredible Robin to Clark’s Batman. To many Hawkeye fans, they have become the “Law Firm of Clark and Czinano”, a nickname coined by the Big Ten Network’s Cristy Winters-Scott.
“Experience is a great teacher,” Bluder said. “They have just had that and they have been able to develop bonds over that time. They have learned lessons from different situations. When Monika said she was going to come back for a fifth year we really believed that we could do something great with this team that was coming back. So that was a huge portion of this.
“I mean, if Monika wouldn’t have come back it would have been really, really, really hard to do… you could get sick of each other after that many games, right? They honestly love each other.”
While those two garner the majority of the headlines, the other three have been just as important to Iowa’s run of success over the last three years. Kate Martin, like Czinano, decided to come back for a fifth season and a chance to get Iowa to new heights. Martin may not be the biggest scorer, but she’s had big games when the Hawkeyes have needed it most. She had 19 in the Hawkeyes big win over Indiana to end the regular season. She had her first double-double of the season in a road victory at then #2 Ohio State. She also scored 16 in Iowa’s win over Colorado in the Sweet Sixteen.
Martin redshirted her freshman year and has seen her scoring average grow year over year. She also is the second-best passer on the team, averaging 3.6 assists per game and ranks 12th all time in Hawkeye history for assists in her career. She also knocked down 40% of her threes this year. Martin is the definition of a player who develops in a system and knows her role. She is the perfect example of what Bluder and her staff have shown there are able to do with all their players, develop them into efficient starters.
“I wouldn’t pick any other squad to do it with,” Martin said. “I wouldn’t pick any other four players to do it with. I’m just so happy for them. I think it just shows we’ve worked really hard. We really have, we’ve worked really hard for the last three years and years before that too, you know, it doesn’t happen overnight. Things like this don’t just happen overnight. I’ll never forget these moments. I’ll never forget these people. And I mean, we’re going in the history books forever.”
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Marshall is the three-point specialist of the bunch. While all of them besides Czinano can shoot threes, outside shooting is Marshall’s No. 1 strength. 75% of her shots this year came from deep, and she hit 38% of them. She’s hit 60 triples, which is tied for second-most on the team.
In postseason play, Marshall has shot 50% from behind the arc, 23-of-46. She made seven 3-pointers and scored 21 points in the Hawkeyes win over Maryland in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. In Sunday’s win, Marshall hit three triples and had an and-1 in transition with just over a minute left that finally put Louisville away for good. She’s hit at least one 3-pointer in the team’s last 14 games and ranks eighth all time in career three pointers made at Iowa.
“Obviously last year was a heartbreaker,” Marshall said. “We’ve been starting together for three years and we knew that this was our dream together and we wanted to do it together. I think there’s no other group that I’d rather be here with and no other team. I think we were so deserving of a moment like this and Coach Bluder was so deserving too. I think it’s just all coming to fruition. It’s a surreal feeling.”
Lastly but certainly not least there is Warnock, the third of the 1000-point scorers along with Clark and Czinano. She also is the definition of a player who does a little bit of everything. She can score, rebound and pass as she averaged 11 points, six rebounds and two assists a game. Every team needs a player who is willing to fill a different role every given night and that is what Warnock has brought to this Hawkeye team.
Warnock has come up with some big moments in postseason play. She, like Marshall, scored 21 against Maryland in the Big Ten semifinals. She scored in double figures against both Georgia and Colorado during the NCAA tournament. Then on Sunday, she hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the second quarter to push the Hawkeye lead from three to nine. Warnock is just another one of those players who fits her role so well and has developed into a solid player under Bluder and her staff.
While these five have meant so much to Hawkeyes, they were playing for more than just a berth for the Final Four on Sunday evening. They also were playing for associate head coach Jan Jensen, whose father passed away early Sunday morning. The players knew her father’s dream was to see them advance to the Final Four and felt his spirit was watching over them during the game. For Jensen, this team but especially five starters have been incredibly special and she’s proud to have coached them.
“I think that’s a testament to the culture of our team,” Jensen said. “I think they enjoy each other. I think they enjoy how Lisa and our staff coach. It’s not fun to sit at the bench and so there it’s usually if they leave, it’s because they just want to play a little more. I’ve just been really grateful. I think they like being a part of it. That’s something I’m proud of is that they enjoy their time here.”
It’s rare to have five players start 90 games together at all but, in this day, and age it has become almost unheard of with the explosion of the transfer portal. So many players are switching schools left and right and so you almost never see five players all play together for the same school for three years. However, these five have clearly shown not only a joy for playing with each other but a hunger to complete a goal that has escaped Iowa since Lisa Bluder became the head coach. That goal was finally achieved on Sunday night.
“I think like Coach said, it really hasn’t sunk in yet, probably won’t for awhile,” Clark said. “But I mean, about the only people that believed were me and her when I first committed to her and it was getting the locker room to believe and then everybody in the locker room believed and the rest is kind of history… she believed in me and that was really all that mattered. And we made our locker room believe and when you dream and work really hard, a lot of really cool things can happen.”
Each of the five starters plays a different role for the Hawkeyes.
Clark, the superstar.
Czinano, the dominant post presence.
Martin, the passer.
Marshall, the three-point specialist.
Warnock, the jack of all trades.
Each of them has bought into their role and executed it at the highest level. It showed on Sunday night, with the five of them combining for 87 of the Hawkeye’s 97 points.
Their play is what has what has finally gotten Iowa back to the precipice of college basketball and to a 91st start together. Their hard work, determination and relationships are what have gotten them this far. Their time together is something they’ll never forget and the five of them will be bonded together for the rest of their lives from their shared experiences.
“It’s amazing,” Warnock said. “It’s so awesome to be able to be surrounded by these girls and you know, they are all such good people, great basketball players, even better people off the court. I think that’s the biggest part of it. They’re my best friends and so it makes it even more sweet coming to this point. They’re going to be my wedding. I mean, I’ll be in their wedding, hopefully, and they’re always gonna be a part of my life.”
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Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.