Leistikow: Super sophomores Caitlin Clark, Keegan Murray bring positive buzz for Iowa basketball

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

After watching Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark deliver yet another dizzying performance Sunday night, it’s natural to wonder: If she’s that good, why doesn’t she shoot the ball on every Hawkeye possession?

Even double- and triple-teamed in the Hawkeyes’ 98-90 loss at No. 5 Michigan, Clark wowed the basketball-watching nation with the most prolific scoring night of her still-young career: a career-high 46 points, with 33 of them coming in the final 13 minutes, 2 seconds.

Twice, she pulled up from the midcourt “M” on the Crisler Center floor and canned 3-pointers … while being guarded. We’re talking legit 35- to 40-foot attempts. Those are shots she practices in the gym when nobody’s around.

MORE: How Iowa native Caitlin Clark became a must-see basketball star

“I feel like I played really loose in the fourth quarter,” Clark said afterward. “I just started launching the ball, honestly.”

Recently, teammate Monika Czinano was telling me about “the look” Clark will get at times when she knows it’s time to take over a game. Sunday, with short-handed Iowa trailing, 66-41, it was clear that she decided that she wasn’t going down without a fight. A driving bucket and a foul with 3:02 left in the third quarter got her going. Over the next 12 minutes of game clock, Iowa reeled off 47 points to get within 93-88 on Clark's two free throws with 1:05 to go.

Clark was 8-for-8 in the fourth quarter until missing her final two attempts in the final minute.

“She does a great job of recognizing when our team needs a spark or energy. That’s when she’ll try to turn it on and make something happen,” Czinano said. “I feel like it’s to amp her up. But also, she knows it’s what we need, and she knows that’ll ignite the rest of us. She’s a competitor. She hates to lose. She hates to feel like things are slipping away.”

That answer reveals Clark isn’t just chucking shots for 40 minutes. She badly wants to win. She knows the best chance for Iowa to be a Final Four team is to have everyone involved, to have everyone making shots. Her intentionality in getting teammates involved is shown in the fact that she also had 10 assists Monday … increasing her Division I-leading average to 8.2 per game. She also leads all D-I players, men or women, at 27.4 points per game.

The 46 points were a Crisler Center record; Iowa coach Lisa Bluder thought the total should've been higher based on non-foul calls against her star point guard.

Lisa Bluder, left, and Caitlin Clark believe the Hawkeyes will be stronger for their current stretch of short-handed adversity.

“I’m telling you, she got mugged going to the rim a lot,” Bluder said. “I’m just disappointed she didn’t get 50.”

Clark took positives from the loss, because of how Iowa fought despite being down two key starters (and having just seven available players for the second straight road game).

Bluder was hopeful that guard Gabbie Marshall (43% from 3-point range) might be able to return in Wednesday’s home game against Minnesota; if not, the odds are good for a big Feb. 14 showdown with Maryland at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The wait will be longer for McKenna Warnock, who has a left-hand injury and won’t see the doctor again for nearly a week, Bluder said.  Warnock is Iowa’s power forward (11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds per game) and the team’s best defender. She was sorely missed against Michigan, which dominated inside.

More:Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark was so ridiculous in 4th quarter that she was trending on Twitter in Iowa

“I do believe it’s going to make us a better team in the long run,” Clark said. “These players that haven’t really played much are having to step up and play at the sixth-ranked team’s home court. That’s going to make them a better player, make us a better team. When we do get those players back, which we hope to do fairly soon, I think the sky’s the limit. I don’t think people want to play us. They know the firepower we have.”

At this point, Iowa (15-6 overall, 9-3 Big Ten) needs to try to scrape out whatever wins it can and get healthy for March. The Hawkeyes are currently tied for third in the league but four of their final six games are against top-20 teams in the NCAA NET (Maryland, Michigan and two against Indiana — one of which hasn’t been rescheduled yet). It’ll take some good basketball, probably short-handed, to secure a top-four seed and double bye for the March 2-6 Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.

But with Clark, you can never count Iowa out.

More:Caitlin Clark scores 46 points, including 25 in fourth quarter, for Iowa women's basketball

Speaking of star sophomores: Keegan Murray showed his value Sunday.

What a remarkable thing that the University of Iowa has two of basketball’s most dynamic stars. And, considering the recent history, a remarkable sight that Murray played almost every minute of Sunday’s 71-59 Hawkeye men's home win against Minnesota.

There was fan curiosity about what interim coach Billy Taylor would do if Murray got two first-half fouls — as he did in recent losses to Purdue and Penn State that kept him on the bench for the majority of the first halves of both games.

Turns out, we didn’t have to find out as Murray played foul-free in the first half and came off the floor only for two quick breathers totaling 45 seconds. Murray scored 24 points with 15 rebounds with a full array of offensive power and finesse. Most impressive, he helped to hold Minnesota scoring leader Jamison Battle to two points on 1-of-12 shooting. No doubt, Murray's NBA stock rose Sunday with a sensational all-around performance. 

“Last time (Battle) got 20 points (against us), and I just took that personal,” Murray said. “I wasn’t going to have him outplay us tonight.”

If you looked closely, you even saw a little emotion from Murray during the game, as he showed he was capable of carrying the Hawkeyes into the NCAA Tournament. Monday’s bracket projection by USA TODAY Sports has Iowa (15-7 overall, 5-6 Big Ten) as a No. 10 seed, which should offer encouragement that there is a lot to play for when Fran McCaffery returns. The 12th-year head coach is expected to travel to Maryland for Thursday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.

More:Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery enters COVID protocol, to miss Minnesota game

The next big question: Will McCaffery continue to handle the rotations as Taylor did Sunday?

A starting-lineup change was McCaffery’s call — Jordan Bohannon to the point and Tony Perkins in for Joe Toussaint — but what Taylor did during the game deviated from the head coach's normal substitution patterns. In the final 15:32, Taylor mostly stuck with a core six players — Ahron Ulis, Bohannon, Patrick McCaffery, Keegan Murray, Kris Murray and Filip Rebraca — while sprinkling in freshman Payton Sandfort for a five-minute stint. He would rotate Kris Murray and Rebraca. Meanwhile, Ulis, Bohannon and Keegan Murray (except for a smart, 12-second reprieve from the 4:08 mark to 3:56 to capture the media timeout, too) didn't leave the floor.

Iowa's defense, led by Keegan Murray, helped turn the tide of a must-win game against Minnesota. Here, Murray and Patrick McCaffery defend Minnesota's E.J. Stephens.

Thinning down the rotation was necessary (with Connor McCaffery sidelined by injury) but also helped Ulis (nine points) find confidence and a flow in the second half. Bohannon played some of his best defense of the year and finished with a plus-15 rating (second on the team to Kris Murray’s plus-16). 

The Hawkeyes have a chance this week to win two games against teams outside the top 100 in NET (at Maryland, then Nebraska at home Sunday) to get over .500 in conference play. This is a good week to ride the second-half momentum against Minnesota with a shorter rotation ... foul trouble, pending, of course.

Because Sunday was a reminder of the immense value of having Keegan Murray on the floor. That factor changes everything for the Hawkeyes.

More:Without coach Fran McCaffery, Iowa men's basketball seeks needed win over Minnesota

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.