Freshman Caitlin Clark scores 35 as Iowa women's basketball hammers Kentucky to reach Sweet 16

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

The offense flowed without a hitch. The defense retained its late-season suffocating form. Iowa blended the two together to create a women's basketball masterpiece that has the Hawkeyes dancing back to the Sweet 16.

A first half of pure domination was enough to prop up Iowa's runaway NCAA Tournament victory. The No. 5 seed Hawkeyes hammered No. 4 seed Kentucky from the opening tip Tuesday afternoon, cruising to a 86-72 victory at San Antonio's Bill Greehey Arena. The win sends Iowa (20-9) to its third Sweet 16 under Lisa Bluder and the second in the last three years. 

"You look at our team at the beginning of the year," Bluder said, "nobody even had us receiving votes in the top 25. We just kept believing in ourselves. I'm so happy for my team. We're a young team, but we're going to build on this."  

Tuesday's pregame chatter centered on the all-America showdown between Rhyne Howard and Caitlin Clark. Clark grabbed hold of that storyline before it had any chance to materialize.

The decorated freshman piled up 24 of her game-high 35 points in the first half, good enough to outscore Kentucky's entire team at the break. An 11-0 Iowa run opened the game — when all five Iowa starters scored — and the Wildcats were left reeling with no backup plan. Clark, who drained six of her first eight 3-point attempts, stole the show the way she has all season. 

"I was feeling my shot early there in the first half," Clark said, "and when it's going, you just keep shooting it. 

"But I think it was a whole team effort. Everybody was knocking down shots — it wasn't just me. Monika (Czinano) was scoring inside. McKenna (Warnock) hit a few threes. Gabbie (Marshall) hit a three. Tomi (Taiwo) was driving to the hole. So it was a team effort all throughout the game."  

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts after hitting a three during the first half of a college basketball game in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at the Greehey Arena in San Antonio, Texas.

Iowa's 23-11 advantage after one quarter swelled to a 49-22 intermission lead. Clark's high-arching swishes and undeterred swagger rightfully dominated the first-half headlines. However, the Hawkeyes' swarming defense deserves equal credit for this blowout.

The fact that Iowa entered with the nation's worst scoring defense seemed like a misprint once it bottled up Howard and any reinforcements. The two-time SEC player of the year missed seven of her first eight shots, had trouble finding space and didn't get going in some capacity until it was much too late. Iowa will gladly take Howard's final stat line of 28 points on 8-for-21 shooting (and 5-for-12 from deep). 

Overall, Kentucky shot 35% from the field and 26% from deep, putting just two in double figures behind Howard. Iowa easily countered beyond its star with 14 points and eight rebounds from Czinano, 10 points from Warnock and seven from Taiwo off the bench.

"Everybody on our team knows their value," Bluder said, "and that's what makes our team so close. That's what makes our team really good because everyone understands they have a role — and that role is very valuable whatever it may be." 

While Iowa's 2019 Sweet 16 appearance was buoyed by pivotal veterans who ascended as upperclassmen, this run is much more surprising. Beyond Clark and Czinano, there were unknowns to answer in abundance. Questions even lingered about Clark — would she match her sky-high recruiting prowess right away? There was no preseason March Madness love for these Hawkeyes. 

That's certainly changed now. A date with powerhouse Connecticut likely awaits next weekend, where Clark will meet Huskies freshman Paige Bueckers in another crucial showdown.

Iowa won't be the favorite, but it certainly picked up some basketball adoration after Tuesday's drubbing. 

"Going onto the Sweet 16 is something special," Clark said. "Honestly, they didn't have us in the field to start this season, but this team just believed in the coaches. The coaches believed in us, and we just worked hard every single day. So that's what we're going to continue to do. We're going to keep being us going into the Sweet 16.

"This is an awesome feeling. This is something you dream of when you're a little kid. I'm just excited for the girls, the coaches and this program."  

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.