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Hawkeyes hold off Rutgers in women's basketball classic: Here's how they did it, in four scenes

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On the final day of 2020, the Iowa women’s basketball team was kind enough to provide a free clinic of how to defeat an excellent opponent in a hard-fought game.

The Hawkeyes held off Rutgers 90-84 in a Carver-Hawkeye Arena matinee that was dramatic and chaotic.

Iowa (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten Conference) built a 20-point lead in the second quarter, only to see the Scarlet Knights erase 18 points from that margin by halftime, thanks to a harassing defense that made it a chore for the Hawkeyes to even execute a simple inbounds pass.

But let’s pick up this story in the second half, which is when the teams went chin-to-chin for 20 entertaining minutes. Rutgers (5-2, 1-2) seized two brief one-point leads. Iowa grabbed the advantage right back, and held on for dear life.

Here’s how it happened, in reverse chronological order:

Iowa guard Kate Martin (20) celebrates with teammates heading into a timeout during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Kate Martin's scene: A big 3-pointer in front of her bench to seal a big victory

Kate Martin attempted only one 3-pointer all game. There were 39 seconds remaining and her Hawkeyes led by only three points.

Point guard Caitlin Clark, who was aggressively trapped by Rutgers 30 feet from the basket, anticipated what was coming and found Martin open right in front of the Iowa bench. Martin rattled her shot home to double the advantage. Game over.

“I knew she was going to knock it down,” Clark said. “We practice those every single day.”

Added Iowa coach Lisa Bluder: “I think that was kind of the nail in the coffin, actually.”

Martin, a sophomore, ended with a career-high 12 points, including Iowa’s final two on free throws with 7 seconds left.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) makes a basket as Rutgers's Tekia Mack (31) and Rutgers guard Diamond Johnson (3) defend during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Caitlin Clark's scene: A drive, a stepback, five clutch free throws

Clark, a freshman, committed eight turnovers against a Rutgers team that forces 25 per game on average. She said she was “rushing things” in the first half.

By the fourth quarter, she was swishing things, starting with a drive from the right baseline that left her hanging in the air while banging into the Scarlet Knights’ Sakima Walker, who is 6-foot-4. Clark’s shot fell through the net as she fell to the court. She made the ensuing free throw with 2:09 on the clock to put her team ahead 77-72.

Nineteen seconds later, Clark launched a stepback jump shot that was right on target for a 79-74 advantage.

“She had some bad turnovers, and then you’re able to pitch that and in the closing  minutes of the game, you make an old-fashioned 3-point play, go to the free-throw line with confidence and nail them,” Bluder said of Clark.

“She wanted the ball in her hands, and I’m pretty confident with the ball in her hands.”

Clark finished with 28 points and six assists. She made all five of her free throws in the final minutes. Her last turnover came with 8:33 remaining.

Iowa's McKenna Warnock (14) makes a 3-point basket during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Rutgers, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

McKenna Warnock's scene: Moving inside the arc for a surprise basket

McKenna Warnock sat out Iowa’s Dec. 22 win over Western Illinois with an injury. Bluder said she might have been available for that game if Iowa really needed her, but she wanted to let her rest up for Big Ten play.

There was no rest for Warnock on Thursday. She played 39 minutes. She scored 18 points, and her nine rebounds were three more than any other player in the game.

Warnock made five 3-pointers in a row in the first half.

Her biggest play, though, came with 8:01 remaining. She hadn’t attempted a shot yet in the second half, and hadn’t shown any inclination to look at the basket from inside the 3-point arc.

So you can imagine how shocked Rutgers guard Diamond Johnson was to see Warnock dribble past her from the top of the key, forcing a foul while banking in an eight-foot shot. Rutgers had just scored six quick points to cut the deficit to 63-62 and prompt Bluder to call a timeout. Warnock put an end to that run.

Was it a designed play?

“I think that the drive took me a little by surprise, just because I’d been at the 3-point line all (game),” Warnock said. “So that was kind of nice to get down.”

Iowa guard Gabbie Marshall (24) makes a basket during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Rutgers, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Gabbie Marshall's scene: Regaining the Iowa lead with long-range accuracy

Rutgers finally worked its way into the lead in the third quarter. It was 54-53 Scarlet Knights when Hawkeye guard Gabbie Marshall got loose for back-to-back 3-pointers to restore order. They were the only two 3s Marshall hit, and the timing couldn’t have been better. She finished with 10 points and six assists, as all five Iowa starters reached double digits in scoring.

“It’s just good for our team to get a lot of people involved in the offense, and I think that we’re getting there,” said Bluder, who added that the Hawkeyes were excited about the prospect of attacking a zone defense, which they rarely see.

Iowa center Monika Czinano (25) gets fouled by Rutgers guard Arella Guirantes (24) during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa and Rutgers met only once last season. The Scarlet Knights prevailed at home, 78-74, in a game the Hawkeyes let get into overtime. They face each other again Jan. 24 in Piscataway, New Jersey, in what should be another hotly contested game.

Monika Czinano, Iowa’s junior center who scored 17 points Thursday, spoke about what went wrong last season and how things were better for her team in the rematch.

“We were more composed. I think we broke their press really well. They had to take it off for a little bit. I think we were talking really well on defense,” Czinano said.

“They’re really good at getting up in your face. They feed off the energy of you getting flustered. So even if you do get flustered, you can’t let them see it. You can’t let them see you sweat. So I think that was crucial.”

The Hawkeyes next play at Illinois at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.