Caitlin Clark finds her stroke late as Iowa women roll into Big Ten championship
As the clock wound down on the third quarter, Caitlin Clark walked slowly up the court and put the ball between her legs. It had not been the best game for Clark. The normally 27.4 per game scorer shot just 6-21 in the game.
“I have a lid on the rim right now,” Clark said, smiling. “But that’s OK, I’m still going to keep shooting.”
Leading by just four, she worked her way to the 3-point line. She wasn’t open, yet she leaned and drained a bucket over the Michigan State defender. She held her fists up and close to her torso in cautious celebration. But with that shot, her team had found it.
The Hawkeyes, in their 87-72 Big Ten Tournament semifinal win over Michigan State, had been searching for that shot all game: the 3-pointer. Monika Czinano scored 27 points down low (“Monika continues to be Monika. 75% shooting. Are you kidding?” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said), but the MSU perimeter attack matched the top-ranked 3-point shooting Hawkeyes as their No. 2 Big Ten conference scoring offense initially succumbed to the Spartans’ fifth-ranked defense.
Yet they rebounded and then exploded. The Hawkeyes will play Maryland Saturday in the tournament final.
“It’s March, and March is fun,” Bluder said.
Michigan State’s defense played quick, rotated often and, when Iowa got inside, they fouled hard. Off a steal in the second quarter, Gabbie Marshall caught a seemingly wide open pass down low and was immediately crushed by a MSU player committing a foul. A few possessions later, the Spartans were more subtle, leaning against Marshall, who caught the ball on a backdoor cut, as she tried to fight against her momentum carrying her out of bounds.
Clark danced around the top of the key, but when she penetrated to the paint of the MSU defense, her dribbles were slower and more deliberate to fight off contact. The Hawkeyes benefited from quick passes inside, where Clark collected six first-half assists and Czinano 13 first-half points.
Yet Michigan State, a middling team from 3-point range, matched Iowa’s first-half 3-point effort on four fewer attempts. Up four points near the end of the half, Clark collected a steal, worked the ball around her back in transition but missed the layup. MSU, on the other end, was wide open from beyond the arc and drained it. They cut the Hawkeyes lead to one and went up a possession later.
Michigan State brought the same defense in the second-half, and Iowa brought a lot of the same production, too. Czinano collected and finished a wild pass down low. McKenna Warnock hit a 3-pointer in stride. But Marshall also overthrew Czinano and Clark committed a charge.
Yet near the middle of the quarter, Clark hit Marshall with a bounce pass in transition, which she collected and finished through the foul. As her team jumped, Marshall remained stoic. But when they closed in, she cracked a grin. The Hawkeyes' offense was on. They went on a big run, took control and never lost it.
“The last half was pretty special,” Bluder said.
Clark hit the leaning 3-pointer at the end of the third. Another in the fourth. Then she squared up for another mid-way through the quarter.
“No, no, no!” yelled Czinano. She wanted Clark to pull it out.
“No,” Clark thought. She was too open.
“Just got to step up,” Clark said, again with a grin. “I think it would look bad if I didn’t shoot it.”