Leistikow: National spotlight set to shine on Caitlin Clark-led Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Eleven months ago, on Feb. 6 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Iowa women’s basketball star Caitlin Clark found herself in what she called one of the best shooting zones of her life.

Though the short-handed Hawkeyes would lose that game, 98-90, Clark’s show-stopping performance was incredible. Her team down 66-41 with three minutes to go in the third quarter, she went on a tear – scoring 33 points in the final 13:03 (including 25 in the fourth quarter) to finish with 46 points. Two of her six 3-pointers in the game came from 35-plus feet, insane pull-ups near the “M” at midcourt.

“I think at one point that I made a shot over three defenders,” Clark recalled this week in a wide-ranging interview on our Hawk Central radio show. “Sometimes there are just those days when you literally just can’t miss.

Listen:PODCAST: 1-on-1 with Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark; football roster changes

“And I remember, I had just made like five 3s in a row. And then when I air-balled that last one, everybody starts chanting, ‘Air ball’ at me. I’m like, 'C’mon, guys, I just gave you a show, you can’t do that!’ I was laughing, though, that was pretty funny."

Just three weeks later, Michigan came to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for another high-stakes game. A win, and the Hawkeyes would capture a share of the Big Ten Conference regular-season championship. All Clark did was drain 8-of-11 from 3-point distance and finish with 38 points and 11 assists as the Hawkeyes cut down their own nets after a 104-80 rout.

And now comes the first rematch of the highly accomplished programs. Fittingly, it’ll be the first-ever women’s basketball game aired on Fox – a 3:30 p.m. Saturday tip-off from the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. A national-TV game with a national star who averaged 42 points against the Wolverines last February.

“Huge. Really cool,” Clark said. “Our goal is to go in there and win, and we believe we can.”

The stakes are high.

This is the only time that No. 12 Iowa (11-4 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) and No. 19 Michigan (13-2, 3-1) play this regular season. Later this month, on Jan. 23, the day after Clark turns 21, Iowa has its only matchup with No. 3 Ohio State (15-0, 4-0) this season. Whoever wins those single-play matchups in an 18-game conference schedule will have a major leg up in the standings and in tiebreakers.

Caitlin Clark scored 84 points in two matchups against Michigan last season, including 38 on Feb. 27 as Iowa prevailed to win a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with Ohio State. The Hawkeyes and Wolverines clash in their first meeting since on Saturday (3:30 p.m. CT, Fox).

“(Ohio State), it's the day after my birthday, come on. (A win) is the only birthday present I want,” Clark said as part of a conversation about the Hawkeyes’ difficult schedule – not that she’s looking ahead. “It really is a long Big Ten season.”

More:Leistikow: How lifelong Iowan Caitlin Clark grew into a must-watch basketball star

Iowa remains ranked No. 12 in the latest coaches’ poll despite a Sunday loss at Illinois, a rising program with excellent guard play that head coach Lisa Bluder thinks will be in the thick of the Big Ten race until the end. Illinois was also a single-play game for Iowa.

For the Hawkeyes to repeat as Big Ten champions will be difficult, just because of the level of competition and the schedule. Behind Ohio State, five teams are tied for second at 3-1.

Clark is playing as well as ever. Her 3-point shooting is up, her turnovers are down. The junior guard is averaging 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game. She has a remarkable ability to see the big picture in wins and losses. Sure, the preseason top-five Hawkeyes have four losses – three of them were very winnable in her eyes (Kansas State, UConn, Illinois) while the other (North Carolina State) was just a poor defensive game by Iowa.

She also sees a much higher ceiling for this team, which returned all five starters from a year ago, as the season wears on.

Some examples of possible growth: Star post player Monika Czinano has shot 67.8%, 66.8% and 67.9% over the past three seasons with remarkable consistency but is “only” at 61.8% this year. Gabbie Marshall, who shot 47.1% from 3-point range as a sophomore and 39.3% as a junior, is struggling at 20% (11-for-55) at the midway mark of the regular season. Even Clark is annoyed with (but not worried about) her own free-throw percentage. She was at 88.1% a year ago but has dipped to 82.4% this season. Hannah Stuelke shows glimpses of greatness (double-double in 10 minutes vs. Purdue), but Bluder craves more consistency from the true freshman post.

“We feel like we’re not where we will be yet,” Clark said. “Certainly, we feel like there’s so much room for us to improve still. That’s normal. We’ve played only four conference games.”

Defense is always a question mark with this Iowa team, which annually possesses a dynamic offense. Clark was encouraged by the Hawkeyes shutting down rival Iowa State in a 70-57 win on Dec. 7, but giving up 90 points to Illinois on Sunday was a disappointment.

Previously:Defensive intensity shown in Cy-Hawk win an encouraging sign for No. 13 Iowa women's basketball

For a team with eyes on reaching the program’s first Final Four since 1993, getting a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament is a must; that would give Iowa a chance to enjoy its enormous home-court advantage for the first two rounds. The importance of a Big Ten crown is secondary to creating a manageable path to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four. But every Big Ten win matters to that seeding.

Bottom line, we’re at the point of the season where every game carries great significance for Clark and the Hawkeyes ... and their opponents, too.

“There’s a target on our backs. We were the Big Ten champs last year. Everybody wants to beat us. That’s how it is. That’s how it should be,” Clark said. “But we understand it’s a long season. It usually comes down to the last few games of Big Ten play. So you can’t get hung up on one win or one loss. That’s just how it is.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.