Leistikow: 4 realities facing Iowa women's basketball after home loss to Maryland

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — With four seconds remaining in the third quarter Monday night, Caitlin Clark did a Caitlin Clark thing. After getting knocked to the ground by a Maryland defender, the sensational Iowa sophomore got back up and received an inbounds pass. She accelerated toward the other end of the Carver-Hawkeye Arena floor, covering a good 50 feet with just three bounces of the basketball. She split two defenders and came to a jump stop in front of a third with 1.2 seconds left and released a shot, about 35 feet away from the hoop.

Off the glass and into the net it went, and Clark pumped her fist in relief.

The home crowd was buzzing, as the Hawkeyes had chopped a 20-point deficit to 11 against the defending Big Ten Conference champions. The 9,820 fans were ready to see Clark help rally the Hawkeyes with her typical magic.

But as it turned out, that signature “logo shot” was the highlight of Clark’s night. She would shoot just 1-for-7 in the fourth quarter and Iowa tumbled to the Terrapins, 81-69. The Hawkeyes waved to the fans and walked off the floor facing four difficult realities.

No. 1: Even the best players can't be great every night.

We’ve come to expect greatness from Clark, and she almost always delivers. The NCAA leader in scoring and assists poured in 28, 42, 27, 46 and 32 points in Iowa’s previous five games with 21 3-pointers. But on Monday, her 10 missed 3-pointers (on 3-for-13 accuracy) were the most of her 53-game college career. A few of her early shots circled the rim and spun frustratingly out. A charging foul on Iowa’s first possession was the first of 10 Clark turnovers, a play that Maryland coach Brenda Frese thought set an important tone.

“It’s hard when your first three shots rim out,” Clark said. “I thought I was going to get going in the third quarter, made a few in a row, then in the fourth quarter struggled again (1-for-7 shooting).

“I didn’t really feel like I had much consistency all night in a lot of areas. That’s my own fault, and I have to own up to that. I don’t think I got many clean looks. That’s just how it is when you play the best teams.”

Clark finished with 19 points, six rebounds and six assists on 7-for-25 shooting. The Terrapins’ versatility and length and physical style — Frese noted that the officials allowed a lot of uncalled contact — allowed them to clog up space the 6-foot guard is accustomed to finding.

"We just did a really good job always have two (players) around her,” Frese said, “and try to make her have more assists this game."

Kevin Durant praises Caitlin Clark's game:'Hopefully more people start watching Iowa basketball'

No. 2: The top of the Big Ten is really good.

And that starts with Maryland, which has crept up on the pack after three early losses in conference play. The league’s powerhouse program in recent years under Frese had Iowa’s number in 2021 in two blowout wins — including in the Big Ten Conference tournament title game — and brought back all five starters from that team. Suddenly, Maryland (now 19-6 overall, 11-3 in the Big Ten) has won seven games in a row. And the Terrapins were without star point guard Ashley Owusu (ankle). That is daunting for Iowa to think about.

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder dismissed the idea that this Maryland is the measuring stick in the Big Ten, but the Terrapins are certainly the toughest annual hurdle for the Hawkeyes.

Frese added this comment to the Big Ten conversation: “Our league — best in the nation.”

Five teams that have separated themselves in the standings, but only four can get that coveted double bye in the Big Ten tournament March 2-6 in Indianapolis. The problem for Iowa (16-7 overall) is that it’s now in fifth place at 10-4 in league play and has already lost head-to-head tiebreakers with Maryland and Ohio State (11-3), and the Buckeyes have an easy schedule the rest of the way. Iowa also has a loss to Michigan (11-3) and will host the Wolverines again in the Feb. 27 regular-season finale.

More:Late push from Iowa women's basketball falls short in loss to No. 12 Maryland

Maybe the best (only?) chance for the Hawkeyes to ascend to top-four status in the league is to sweep upcoming back-to-back games against fifth-ranked, first-place Indiana (10-2 in the Big Ten after Monday’s loss at Nebraska) on Saturday in Bloomington and Monday in Iowa City in a makeup game.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get that double bye,” Bluder said simply.

Iowa does have a two-game lead in the loss column over sixth-place Nebraska, and the Hawkeyes swept the Huskers. So it seems like the Hawkeyes are most likely to settle as the No. 5 seed in Indianapolis, which would mean trying to win four games in four days — three of them with a high degree of difficulty — to achieve their top goal of a Big Ten championship.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark tried to find a lot of different ways to score against Maryland's switching defense Monday night. She finished with 19 points in 40 minutes.

No. 3: Playing short-handed is an ongoing concern.

A positive story for the Hawkeyes is the recent emergence of 6-4 freshman Addison O’Grady. She had a career-high 16 points Feb. 3 at Wisconsin. And with starting center Monika Czinano saddled with foul trouble Monday, O'Grady provided the Hawkeyes a spark with eight points and six rebounds in 13½ encouraging minutes.

But even so, Iowa is sorely missing power forward McKenna Warnock. The Hawkeyes gave up 19 offensive rebounds on 39 opportunities — meaning half the time Maryland missed a shot, it got another chance to score. Warnock’s return from a left-hand injury would bolster Iowa’s defense and rebounding, not to mention she’s a career 44.2% shooter from 3-point range. The junior would seemingly inject a lot of juice into the Hawkeyes’ stretch run, if and when she returns. But Bluder indicated Warnock wasn’t close to playing Monday with that injury. A timetable for her return is unclear.

The good news is that Iowa has a five-day gulf between games after playing 13 Big Ten games in a 40-day stretch. Clark is playing almost every minute of every game and probably crashed to the floor at least a dozen times Monday. She could use a breather, and so could the Hawkeyes. Warnock's hand needs every day it can get.

More:Iowa women’s basketball reschedules Indiana home game for Feb. 21

No. 4: NCAA Tournament magic will (probably) have to come in a road venue.

That’s not a done deal, but without a white-hot finish it is unlikely the Hawkeyes will be picked to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games as a top-four seed. ESPN women’s basketball bracket expert Charlie Creme on Tuesday morning had Iowa pegged as a No. 6 seed playing in Knoxville, home of projected third seed Tennessee.

A year ago, Clark-led Iowa advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed but that was at a neutral setting in San Antonio due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The path this year might be on the road. That’s not the end of the world; with Clark on the Hawkeyes’ side, anything is possible.

Starting Sunday, Iowa could play as many as eight games in 16 days — four in nine to close the regular season, then potentially four in four at the Big Ten tourney after a three-day break. 

Rather than the usual one-game-at-a-time thought process in college basketball, this is a time for the Hawkeyes to think big picture — to understand their best chance for postseason success is to rest up, reset and recharge.

More:Despite 46 points from Caitlin Clark, shorthanded Iowa women's basketball falls at Michigan

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.

Iowa's Addison O'Grady drives to the basket as Maryland guards Katie Benzan, left, and Taisiya Kozlova defend during Monday's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.