Leistikow's 4 thoughts ahead of Iowa-LSU title matchup: 'Team of destiny' is confident

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

DALLAS − After taking a joyous walk to the locker room after Iowa’s stunning 77-73 win against top-ranked South Carolina on Friday night, head coach Lisa Bluder greeted her team with the message that “it is absolutely our destiny” to win this year’s NCAA women’s basketball championship.

Her Hawkeyes are so close now, they can already feel the strands of net between their fingers. They’ve cut down nets in Minneapolis (Big Ten title) and Seattle (Final Four clincher) already.

“You are that good,” Bluder told her team. “There is no reason why you shouldn’t be taking down that championship net on Sunday.”

The “team of destiny” talk has been permeating around this group throughout the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes have had so many things that don’t seem like accidents happen along the way.

In the round of 32? Facing a Georgia team led by a coach and unique defense it had played (and struggled against) a year earlier.

In the round of 16? Facing a Colorado team it already had scouted the year before in the NCAA Tournament in Iowa City.

In the Elite Eight? Learning of the death of Jan Jensen’s father on the morning of the Louisville game and playing in part for their beloved associate head coach.  

The brackets have fallen their way. Caitlin Clark has played the best basketball of her life and captivated a national TV audience. And now the Hawkeyes (31-6) hope they are 40 more destiny-filled minutes from history, as Sunday’s NCAA title game against LSU (33-2) awaits.

For the first time, the women’s title game will be played on broadcast television (2:30 p.m. CT, ABC). Why not?

Or, as the latest team mantra has been, "Why not us?"

“Just so many weird things have happened," Bluder said, "that we feel it is destiny."

There’s a feeling within the Iowa locker room that winning Sunday – the Hawkeyes are 3-point favorites – is meant to be. That’s not talk. They believe it. When fifth-year senior Monika Czinano thought about the South Carolina game, she never considered that might be her last game as a Hawkeye.

Iowa guard Gabbie Marshall signals love to the crowd after the Hawkeyes' 77-73 win against South Carolina. Marshall did not appear at media interviews Saturday; teammate Kate Martin said Marshall had a sore throat.

“I was like, ‘The next time I go to bed, I’m going to be getting ready for practice the next day,’” Czinano said. “It was cool to see, all of us had confidence. There was no doubt at all.”

So much is at stake. No Iowa basketball team, men or women, has won an NCAA title. The Big Ten hasn’t had a title since the Michigan State men in 2000.  

This team is giving no indication or vibe that it will show up Sunday and produce a championship-game clunker.

“I always talk about people have these dreams, and they get so close to their dreams and they quit,” Bluder said. “They don't know how close they are, right?

“But there's so many times (in life) that you're about to get that sale, or you're about to get something, and you just give up. So, we talk a lot about that, like we're not giving up. Just keep going. Keep going. Why not us? Why not us be the people that are at the top of the ladder at the end?”

As Clark put it: “I understand there's only 40 more minutes left in my season, which is kind of sad because it's been so much fun. But why not go cut down another net?”

How will LSU try to defend Caitlin Clark?

Then-Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was given the opportunity to praise Iowa’s Megan Gustafson ahead of the Elite Eight in 2019 and she sarcastically said she hoped her players didn’t have nightmares about trying to defend her. Now in her second year at LSU – after leading Baylor to national titles in 2005, 2010 and 2019 – Mulkey spoke Saturday with awe about the play of Clark, who has taken the tournament and nation by storm with back-to-back 41-point games on the biggest of stages.

“I don't like to use the word ‘never,’ but I don't know that I've ever seen a player that can do what Caitlin does,” Mulkey said. “That's my first time to see her play in person, and … I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Gosh, she's special.”

LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson said she would probably draw the Clark assignment, but it will likely be a group effort to try to contain the national player of the year.

“I think If I’m guarding Caitlin, I’ll play my best defense ever and throw up a prayer at the same time,” Johnson said.

Point guard Alexis Morris, a terrific 5-foot-6 talent, said that it was important to make sure every one of Clark’s shots were contested.

But, she noted, “I’m just going to be flat-out: It’s going to be hard to stop her. The best thing we can do is contain her. Our game plan is to not let the second, third, fourth, fifth players have an all-world night. That’s when we’re going to be in trouble.”

Clark spent 30 more minutes answering media questions Saturday and was a wonderful mix of confident, insightful and complimentary to her teammates, coaches and opponents. How she’s handled all the attention – from an awe-inspired nation to defenses – is impressive. She was asked how she would stop herself.

Clark explained that it’s impossible, only because Iowa’s read-and-react offense really has no plan. It’s just playing basketball.

“You never know what's going to happen. You can't scout that,” Clark said. “You can try all you want, you can work on actions, but you never know what you're going to do because we don't even know what we're going to do.”

Rebounding and another post star again are story lines

Iowa was crushed by South Carolina in rebounds, 49-25, on Friday but still won the game. LSU will offer a similar challenge. The Tigers average a plus-16 margin in rebounds, not that far off from South Carolina’s plus-20.5 average. The good news: Iowa just played a team like this. The bad: The matchup in the post isn’t great.

LSU star Angel Reese, a Maryland transfer who knows Iowa well, has far more dynamic stats than South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston. The 6-foot-3 Reese averages 23.3 points and 15.6 rebounds per game. Reese tormented Virginia Tech for 24 points and 12 rebounds in the other NCAA semifinal Friday.

“I think me and Caitlin, me and her are in the same class. Me and her are the top two eyes everybody's looking at,” Reese said. “We're both great players. I think we bring a lot to the game.”

That’s hard to argue. The challenge on the boards will be steep. And Iowa cannot sag on LSU’s shooters like it did against South Carolina. The Tigers are 33.7% from 3-point range for the season, though they were only 3-for-13 on Friday.

“I feel like we're playing South Carolina almost with a little bit better shooters,” Bluder said.

The final game for Warnock and Czinano is here.

What a legacy both players will leave behind. Warnock has been a power-forward warrior for four years and has been critical as a 3-point shooter and rebounder in Bluder’s “four-out” offense. She will play her 122nd and final game in an Iowa uniform Sunday.

“Why not go out with a national championship?” she said.

Dental school is next. Warnock will find out what schools are accepting her around May 1. She hopes Iowa will be one of them so she can watch the basketball games next season.

As for Czinano, the No. 3 scorer in Iowa history at 2,400 points will be playing in her school-record 162nd career game. A four-time first-team all-Big Ten player, Czinano’s 18-point game against South Carolina was among the most clutch of her career. And now she’ll be contending with Reese underneath in her final 40 minutes.

What a gift it was for this Iowa program that she elected to return for the COVID-19 bonus year of eligibility.

“I’ve extended this as long as I can. I really stretched this thin,” Czinano joked. “Having 40 minutes with this team in the best-case scenario is going to be really special.”

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.