A more confident Caitlin Clark? Iowa's superstar says she's even better this season
Expectations are high for Iowa women's basketball and on Tuesday night, they delivered a performance fitting of their national ranking. The No. 9 ranked Hawkeyes dominated New Hampshire 93-50 in their season opener at Carver-Hawkeye arena.
New Hampshire won't compare to the Big Ten in competition but there's one area where Iowa shined that translates regardless of opponents: free throws. The Hawkeyes shot 27-for-28 (96%) from the free throw line. Last year's team ranked fourth in the country in free throw percentage but that's going to be critical throughout the year.
"Twenty-seven of twenty-eight, that's going to help us win a lot of games," Bluder said.
It wasn't flawless, the Hawkeyes had 19 turnovers in the game and that'll be an emphasis on Thursday against Samford. But star returners Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano showed why they're both up for national honors and the Hawkeyes showed why they're major national contenders.
Related:Iowa women's basketball: Caitlin Clark named AP first-team preseason all-American
Here are my four thoughts:
Iowa's defense set the tone
Improving defensively was one of Bluder's top priorities in the offseason. Tuesday night showed a glimpse of that improvement. The Hawkeyes forced seven first quarter turnovers while holding New Hampshire to 5-for-15 shooting.
For the game, the Hawkeyes forced 21 turnovers and held New Hampshire to under 30% from the field and 3-point line. That'll also win Iowa a lot of games.
Bluder acknowledges the road ahead is much harder but Tuesday's opener laid a good foundation.
"Each step this week is going to get harder," Bluder said. "We have to continue to focus on it. I think there were some really good things (tonight)".
Caitlin Clark is a year smarter and more comfortable
It didn't take long for star sophomore guard Caitlin Clark to find her groove. She grabbed a rebound and raced up the court and made the game's first jump shot in 20 seconds. By game's end, she had 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Good news for the Hawekyes: She feels more confident now than a year ago.
And a reminder: She was dominant a year ago.
More:Caitlin Clark's FIBA U19 gold medal and tournament MVP highlight her basketball dominance
"I feel like I know a lot more," Clark said. "I think my leadership has grown on the court, and I have more of a command on the offense and getting better at defense as well."
The Hawkeyes played 'big'
On Monday, Bluder challenged her forwards and centers to dominate their matchup and they did just that. Veteran Monika Czinano established herself early with eight points (4-for-shooting) and four rebounds in the first quarter, she finished with 16 points. On the defensive end, the frontcourt limited New Hampshire to 18 points in the paint and held a +18 rebound differential.
Related:For Iowa women's basketball team, success hinges on adjustment to life in the spotlight
An encouraging sign is true freshman Addison O'Grady performed well with eight points on 3-for-5 shooting. Bluder said she'd like to give them more touches.
Transfer Kylie Feuerbach made her presence felt
Matching Clark's 26 minutes was sophomore transfer guard Kylie Feuerbach. A look at the stat sheet explains why: she led Iowa in +/- rating with a +37.
Iowa's starting five is set but in Feuerbach, Bluder adds a high-level player who dependable in clutch situations. And on Tuesday, she flashed some ability passing the ball that most might not have known about.
Two plays stand out: a cross-court pass to Gabbie Marshall for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter and a second quarter steal turned pass to McKenna Warnock that led to a foul and two free throws. Her six assists were tied for first on the team with Clark and Kate Martin.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes athletics for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.