Iowa women's basketball rolls to NCAA Tournament win over Illinois State

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central
Iowa's guard Caitlin Clark (22) and the bench celebrate a 3-pointer against Illinois State during the opening round of the Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Friday, March 18, 2022, in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY —  A No. 2 seed drawing significant headlines on the NCAA Tournament's opening day usually means unwanted drama has come its way. As much as a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena created a women's basketball spectacle worth absorbing, Iowa hoped to get in and out of Friday's first-round game with minimal issues. 

No problem there. 

After taking roughly a quarter to warm up, the second-seeded Hawkeyes took firm control toward the end of the first half and eliminated any upset vibes with a dominant third quarter. The final product was a 98-58 Iowa win over No. 15 seed Illinois State, which advances the Hawkeyes to Sunday's second-round game against No. 10 seed Creighton. The Bluejays beat No. 7 seed Colorado to begin the day. 

"Just kind of coming off from this break —  getting our legs under us again —  just kind of getting a feel for it was huge," all-Big Ten center Monika Czinano said. "It wasn't really that long of a break, but it kind of feels like it when you go from playing games every two to three days

"I think that was huge, and I think it just built confidence for everybody, whether they were a bench player or a starting five member. Everybody got shots up today and was hot, so it was just really good for confidence building in the future."

As much as this Iowa unit leans on veteran pieces, almost all these Hawkeyes entered Friday's affair with no experience in a real NCAA Tournament setting. Czinano played a few minutes here and there in Iowa's wins over Mercer and Missouri in 2019, but that was it as far as packed houses with the season on the line goes. 

Iowa's guard Caitlin Clark (22) goes up for a shot against Illinois State during the opening round of the Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Friday, March 18, 2022, in Iowa City.

As a result, it took the Hawkeyes a minute to digest the scene in front of them Friday and rise to the occasion. A seesawing first quarter saw Illinois State, and particularly Iowa City native Mary Crompton, fire away with conviction. A lack of confidence wasn't going to be the reason the Redbirds lost on this day. 

Eventually, though, the 15,000-plus Iowa supporters in the building had plenty to scream about. The Hawkeyes carved up Illinois State on cross-court passes near the logo, racking up seven steals en route to 13 points off turnovers in the first half. A 43-29 intermission lead initiated the blowout.

The Hawkeyes came barreling out of the locker room in the third quarter on a 12-2 surge, leaning on Czinano for a bevy of easy buckets and great looks that, at worst, turned into free-throw attempts. The all-Big Ten center finished with 18 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting. 

"I'm just kind of disappointed she didn't get more shots," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "She's 6-for-6, perfect from the field, perfect from the free-throw line Why are we not giving her more shots? That's what I want to know. You know, she can take over a game inside. She's so talented. But yeah, we've got to give her the ball a little bit more, too, to let her go to work."

Caitlin Clark did her thing alongside. The national player of the year hopeful finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds for her 16th double-double this season.      

Her only brief misstep came midway through the third quarter, when a full arena got quiet in a hurry as Clark limped around following a near tie-up that resulted in a hard fall. She was quick to bounce back, though, even waving off a potential substitution amid some brief pain.

" I think I was probably just a little out of control myself and then kind of took a tumble," Clark said. "I just hit my knee wrong on the floor. Coach Bluder always wants me to stay on my feet more, but I think I've done better as the year has gone on, but I'm all good. It's part of basketball; it's just how it goes".

Clark showed no issues the rest of the way. Iowa strengthened its grip with additional key showings, getting 13 points from Gabbie Marshall and another 13 off the bench from Tomi Taiwo.

A complete effort saw Iowa cruise to the finish line. 

"I was just excited to play and come out here and play in front of these fans, obviously incredible," Clark said. "I know it's only going to be even better on Sunday when we face Creighton and we're just super, super fortunate to have that kind of support from this community. It's not like that everywhere else. I get the chills every single time I run out of the tunnel and they roar. It's super cool."

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.