Iowa women run into Maryland buzzsaw in Big Ten women's basketball championship

Michael McCleary
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Caitlin Clark threw her hands up in the air and brought her right hand to her face, where it stayed glued. Iowa and Maryland lined up around the paint, but Clark walked right into the center, in between the referee and Maryland’s Ashley Owusu, who was awaiting the pass. She brought her hand down and shrugged as she asked the question: How?

It was a game where Iowa had few answers for Maryland, with the Hawkeyes falling 104-84 in the championship of the Big Ten women's basketball tournament in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon. 

Owusu was about to give Maryland its 53rd point of the game. The first half hadn’t even ended yet (the Terrapins scored some more before it did). Seconds earlier, Owusu drove the lane and lowered her shoulder into Iowa’s Alexis Sullivan, who took the contact and flew back. The whistle blew. The foul was charged to Sullivan. Clark couldn’t believe it. Iowa struggled to get a stop all game. But how did they not get this one?

“Obviously I’m disappointed in a loss,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “I do feel that we could have played better.”

Maryland guard Ashley Owusu (15) dribbles the ball while Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) defends in the first quarter of the Big Ten women's basketball tournament championship on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Throughout their improbable cruise through the conference tournament, explosive offense and an improved defense was enough for Iowa to pull off an upset in the second round and demolish their near-equal in the second half of the semifinal. The team was yet to meet its match, a team that could take the blows of Iowa’s offense yet consistently match it on the other end. But Saturday, in walked that team: Maryland and the Big Ten’s top-ranked offense. The Terrapins shot 11-25 from 3-point range and scored a tournament-high 104 points, dominating Iowa even as the Hawkeyes hovered around their season’s scoring average.

Coming into the game, there was one thing that Clark wasn’t worried about. Iowa would get points. They’ve proved as much this season and throughout the Big Ten conference tournament run. Their lowest-scoring game was 73, and even that was an anomaly, with marks of 83 and 87 in their other two games. They’ve crossed 100 points twice this season, and 90-plus seven more times. But, Clark said, Saturday would be about defense.

Maryland exploited them immediately, though — right off the tip, they swung three quick passes to the corner for a Katie Benzan 3-point make. A few possessions later, Chloe Bibby hit one in the other corner. 

Clark was right, and the offense came. Clark hit two fall-away 3-pointers on each elbow. Monika Czinano still scored in bunches underneath with Gabbie Marshall contributing the occasional 3-pointer. It just didn’t come as quickly as it did for the Terrapins. Iowa backed off Maryland on a walk into their halfcourt, and Mimi Collins trailed off the inbounds pass, walked all the way to the 3-point line and shot an uncontested 3-pointer off the Terrapins first pass of the possession.

Maryland finished the second-chances Michigan State didn’t in Iowa's earlier win in the Big Ten semifinals. They opened a 20-plus point lead, Iowa recovered for brief periods, but in the second half the lead widened.

Bluder saw a lot that she liked Saturday. Sure, she would have wanted a win. But at the end of four games in four days, Czinano said the team grew “leaps and bounds.” Bluder agreed. The Hawkeyes set two Big Ten Tournament records: Czinano set two, with the most points and field goals all time. Clark, a freshman, dished out the more assists than anyone in tournament history. Their team featuring underclassman stars ran their way to the final game of the tournament, beating higher-ranked opponents and possibly rising in the NCAA Tournament field. 

“Nobody would have thought that in the beginning of the year,” Bluder said, “and maybe even the beginning of the week.”