basketball Edit

Iowa 89, Colorado 68: No Drama (For Now)

Caitlin Clark dribbles against Colorado guard
Caitlin Clark dribbles against Colorado guard (© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)

At least the Hawkeyes didn't add any drama to the day.

Top-seeded Iowa punched its ticket to the Elite 8 with a comprehensive win over 5-seed Colorado, 89-68, in Albany, New York on Saturday, setting the stage for a 2023 Championship Game rematch with LSU. All-American guard Caitlin Clark added yet another dominant performance to her already peerless resume, with 29 points, six rebounds, and 15 assists as the Hawkeyes cruised.

Hawkeye guard Sydney Affolter was 6-for-6 from the field to finish with 15 points, second-highest on the team, and super-seniors Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin each had 14 in the win. Colorado was led by 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting by center Aaronette Vonleh.

"I'm really proud of my group," head coach Lisa Bluder said after the win. "Caitlin comes out and has 15 assists, only two turnovers. I thought there's so many people that played well in this game. Syd Affolter has the highest plus/minus of anybody; Gabbie Marshall knocks down threes; Kate Martin, her leadership out there was unbelievable. Hannah Stuelke didn't let their center [Vonleh] have a single O-board. That's hard to do. That's really hard to do."

The Deep Three


1. Caitlin Clark puts it out of reach early. 25 seconds into the game, Caitlin Clark drove the lane and scored a layup to put Iowa ahead 2-1.

The Hawkeyes never trailed again.

Clark had her mastery on display early, and by the end of the first quarter — with Clark sitting at six points and six assists — it was clear that Colorado's inability to keep Clark out of the paint (and thus forcing 4-on-3s away from the ball) would submarine anything else the Buffaloes had planned for Saturday's game.

"I knew they were going to give me really good ball pressure coming into this game," Clark said. "When we set our first couple of ball screens, they were playing drop coverage — their big was just staying in the paint. I knew either Hannah was going to be open on the roll, or I was going to be able to get pretty easy lay-ups."

Clark's fifteen assists matched a season high; her career-best of 18 came against Penn State as a sophomore.

Shockingly, despite her frequent and fruitful dribble drives, Clark only drew two fouls and didn't attempt a free throw Saturday. Clark hadn't been kept off the charity stripe for an entire game since early in her sophomore season, against Samford.

Of course, Clark went 10-of-11 from two-point range in the win, so if the Colorado defense was trying to foul Clark to keep her from scoring at the hoop, it accomplished neither.

Clark's passing wasn't too shabby either.

If there's anything left to worry about for Iowa's scintillating senior, it's that Clark's three-point shooting remained lukewarm; she finished 3-for-11 Saturday, or 27.3%, and she hasn't made more than 50% (or even 40%) of her threes in a game since the demolition over Minnesota in late February.

Not that it mattered much Saturday, as Colorado never made a serious push for the lead.

"I thought we came out and really had that punch to begin the third quarter," said Bluder, as Iowa's 13-point halftime lead quickly ballooned to 19. "We had three straight stops that turned into pushes for us. I think we set the tone early in both of the halves."

2. Beautiful basketball, but not perfect. Iowa looked as prepared as ever for a high-stakes game without starting guard Molly Davis, who missed her sixth-straight game as she recovers from a knee injury suffered four weeks ago against Ohio State.

Compared to last season's Sweet 16 matchup against CU, Iowa coasted Saturday, and key to that was stellar teamwork, as all five starters finished with double-digit scoring (after only four players were able to score at all against West Virginia on Monday night).

"It just makes us harder to guard," Marshall said. "If we move the ball like we did tonight, it makes the defense even harder. Things open up when you're hitting shots from the outside and there's balanced scoring."

Not only were Iowa's other starters scoring, they were scoring by playing their type of basketball — Affolter and Stuelke running the floor and beating their defenders to the driving lanes, and Martin and Marshall knocking down open jumpers in the zone.

"When they went into that zone, they were pretty spread out and they had to worry about Caitlin up at the top and that gave me more room to shoot it," said Marshall, who finished 4-for-5 from behind the arc Saturday. "It led to a lot of open looks at the three."

The downside to Saturday's win, though, is that Iowa committed 19 turnovers — an oddly diversified effort, as Clark and Martin led the team with three apiece. That's up four from the game against press-happy West Virginia, who forced "only" 15 miscues by comparison.

As with the West Virginia game, Iowa's lack of a second reliable ball-handler started to show some signs of teetering. Affolter is, to her credit, improving with the ball in her hands in the open court since arriving on campus — she's certainly not a liability — but after the chaos caused by CU and West Virginia, teams will likely continue to look at Affolter dribbling in transition as a sign to attack.

Still, the Mountaineers and Buffaloes could only force three turnovers on Affolter in 80 combined minutes of action, and there's no arguing with the rest of Affolter's skillset as an integral piece of Iowa's winning formula. In addition to The Big Dog™'s tenacity scrapping for rebounds and loose balls, she has developed into a transition menace in her own right.

"We get reps like that all the time in practice, and Caitlin is the best passer in college basketball," Affolter said. "That's what we like to do, we like to get out and run, and she always finds us in transition."

Affolter finished a perfect 6-for-6 from the field Saturday, and though she also had a perfectly respectable 3-for-4 performance at the charity stripe, that one miss was her first since February 25; she had made 21 straight freebies coming into Saturday's contest.

3. It had to be LSU. Of course, the last thing standing between Iowa and the Final Four is 3-seed LSU, who defeated 2-seed UCLA in a 78-69 thriller in Saturday's early game at the MVP Arena.

LSU rather famously beat Iowa for the national championship last season, in a game that still leaves a sour taste in Iowa fans' mouths — though Clark wouldn't speak to the bitterness of the loss on the team's behalf.

"Ever since this season started, my focus is [going] 1-0 every single time we take the court," Clark said. "I think that's exactly what Coach Bluder preaches. I'm not caught up in the past, not caught up in the future."

Clark did, at least, acknowledge the motivation of getting that win back. "Anytime you have a chance to go up against somebody you lost to, it brings a little more energy."

Bluder was grimly blunt in her assessment of last year's title game.

"We got run out of the gym last year, it was pretty bad," Bluder said. "But honestly, we try to keep looking straight ahead and not listen to the outside noise. I think my team has done a good job of staying off social media, trying not to get caught up in that. I think when you get caught up in all that, it takes your energy off the focus that you need at hand, and that is to prepare for a really good LSU team. Nothing else matters. Nothing matters that happened last year. Nothing matters except for being ready to play this really good LSU team."

That game, which tips off at 6 pm CT (7 pm local) on ESPN, will have less on the line than a national championship, but from a narrative perspective it'll be every bit as much a circus. And the ratings will almost certainly reflect it.

The perpetually pugnacious LSU head coach Kim Mulkey is fresh off vilifying a Washington Post feature before its release, publicly threatening to sue the paper earlier in the week. The feature itself is certainly not complimentary, but it's also hardly the existential threat to Mulkey's career and the LSU program as she made it out to be.

The issue Iowa and its fans should actually worry about, of course, is LSU's length and defensive tenacity, both of which fed into the Tigers' 2023 title win — and which have caused problems for Iowa from the Hawkeyes' peskiest foes this season.

Angel Reese's on-court provocations have long rubbed foes the wrong way, culminating in last season's taunts as the final seconds wound down on the season, but the more pressing issue is that Iowa really doesn't have a great matchup against the 6'3", lightning-quick forward. Her stats have dipped a bit with Aneesah Morrow sharing the paint this season, but Reese is still averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds per game and will almost certainly go in the first round of 2024's loaded WNBA Draft.

The good news, too, is that aside from all the drama, the on-court matchup should be outstanding. If the officiating doesn't play an outsized role in the outcome, even better.

"it's just going to be a really great game for women's basketball," Clark said. "They're really solid one through five. We know we're going to have to rebound the basketball. But more than anything I think just building off this win today, I think this was the first time in about three games we were able to put together what felt like a complete basketball game on both ends of the floor."

Indeed, if Clark and Iowa are able to execute against LSU the way they did against the Buffaloes, they'll likely earn a deeply satisfying return trip to the Final Four.

If, if, if.

More coming on this matchup from Go Iowa Awesome writer Braydon Roberts on Sunday.