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Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes grind past Wisconsin in Big Ten opener

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Through eight quarters of 2020 Iowa women’s basketball, the lead headline, top story and full report undeniably centered on Caitlin Clark and her instant offensive prowess. True freshmen don’t score like she does very often.

Saturday, Clark didn’t quite have it.

So how would these Hawkeyes respond?

Well enough to keep an impressive run of Wisconsin dominance going.

Despite an overall rough shooting afternoon from Iowa’s prized newcomer, the Hawkeyes had a solid crop of reinforcements to transform a slow second-half start into a solid fourth-quarter finish. Iowa’s closing push propelled it to a 23rd straight win over the Badgers, 85-78, in Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"I think Caitlin really took herself out of her shooting percentage," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "I'll watch the film to see for sure, but from my perspective, I don't think Wisconsin did anything special for her."

Clark still ended with a team-high 23 points on 8-for-23 shooting, which included a tough 3-for-10 showing from deep. But the former Dowling Catholic standout still dished out five assists and grabbed five rebounds, swinging the door open for her Iowa teammates to pick up the offensive slack.

A large helping of Monika Czinano was the lead substitute. The preseason all-Big Ten selection poured in 18 points while missing just five shots, also adding nine rebounds in what was a physical game in the paint. Double-digit assistance from Gabbie Marshall (15 points) and McKenna Warnock (12 points) and was needed as well.

"We have people who can step up when other people are struggling," Marshall said. "Even though Caitlin is a really good leader on this team and scores a lot of points, when have (others) who can pick us up and keep the energy up. That's really how we stayed in this game and stayed together."

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) makes a basket as Wisconsin's Sara Stapleton (41) defends during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

While Saturday’s final tally didn't necessarily indicate a tight affair, the Badgers hung around much longer than usual as they looked to halt a painful losing streak. Once sporting a 14-point cushion, Iowa was suddenly tied a mere two minutes into the second half.

Solid efforts from Sydney Hilliard and Imani Lewis kept the back-and-forth action flowing to prevent the Hawkeyes from uncovering any third-quarter comfort.

Only late did Iowa finally put this one away. A 13-2 run to open the fourth pushed the Hawkeyes lead to a hefty 19 points — 74-55 — with just over six minutes left. Wisconsin had a few late spurts to climb within single digits on a few occasions, but Clark awoke in time with nine fourth-quarter points.

"It’s just really making sure with the younger guards, and even when the younger posts come in, us veterans have to step up and take on that leadership," Czinano said. "Definitely just making sure we’re all communicating and all listening is big."   

After her 3-for-13 first half, Iowa had to be encouraged with how Clark finished — mixing together a deep trey with some easy layups generated from aggressive defense.

But perhaps even more significant for these growing Hawkeyes is how they responded around Clark’s tough open.

Iowa's youth was bound to surface at some point. And for the Hawkeyes, it was better for it to happen Saturday with tough games upcoming against Iowa State, Michigan State ad Ohio State. Clark and the rest of Iowa's fledgling assets can grow from this seesawing performance moving forward.

"There were some bright moments, but some good film moments for us," Bluder said. "I like that we had balance ... but we just also showed our youth today."

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.