By Joe Tykane
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Caitlin Clark’s 41 points, the fourth-highest total in the history of the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament, pushed the Iowa Hawkeyes past Nebraska, 83-66, in a semifinal game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Saturday evening.
The second-seeded Hawkeyes (22-7) will attempt to win their second championship in four tournaments and fourth overall when they meet fifth-seeded Indiana at 4 p.m. on Sunday. Iowa’s seventh championship game appearance was made possible by the play of Clark, who added nine rebounds and three assists.
“Caitlin was just Caitlin tonight,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. “…She loves this kind of state and playing in front of this kind of environment. So that was fun.”
Not for Nebraska (24-8), which had hoped to reach its first title game since the 2014 championship season.
Clark made 13 of 27 shots, including five of 13 from 3-point range. She made 10 of 12 foul shots and had nine rebounds. She has scored 40 or more points four times this season.
Monika Czinano, a 6-foot-3 senior, scored 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Kate Martin, a 6-foot junior, had eight points with 11 rebounds.
Although Clark’s total was the most in a semifinal game and fourth-highest in tournament history, it was third best in Iowa history. Megan Gustafson scored 48 against Minnesota in 2018 and 45 in the 2019 championship game victory over Maryland in 2019.
To win a championship, Iowa would have to defeat Indiana for the third time in just over two weeks. The teams met twice within a period of three days, with Iowa winning 96-91 at Bloomington on February 19, and 88-82 at Iowa City two days later. The victories helped the Hawkeyes earn the No. 2 seed and a double bye, with one fewer victory necessary to reach the title game.
“I think the biggest thing that’s going to play to our advantage tomorrow is obviously we had a double bye and Indiana didn’t,” Clark said. “So I think using that to our advantage, and last year we didn’t have a double bye. We knew how exhausting that was coming into that game. And it’s hard to play four games in four days. It’s hard to play three games in three days.”
Clark’s latest captivating effort did not start well. She made just two of her first eight shots, committed five early turnovers and appeared out of sorts. She missed some easy shots, got called for a charge, and even had the ball ripped from her directly by Nebraska’s Jaz Shelley. “I missed a couple bunnies that I should have usually made,” Clark said. Nebraska ended the first quarter with a 20-17 lead after containing Clark and a hot start from Isabelle Bourne, who dropped in 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting.
In order to compensate for her shot not falling, Clark decided to attack the basket more and it paid off in dividends. She got to the rim at will, overwhelming Nebraska with her speed and tight ball handling. The Huskers tried sticking every matchup they could on her, but Clark teleported by all of them with ease.
Clark described how she had so much success driving the ball tonight. “Especially in the second half that was my goal to get to the rim early,” she said. “And I thought I was a little more patient and kind of used my eyes and shot faked a little because they were expecting me to shoot it a little there to start the second half. But, yeah, once I got that edge I’m pretty good at using my body to shield them off in a way.” Clark said there was a big emphasis on finishing through contact in her offseason training, and it was clear tonight that that training paid off.
Her rim pressure buoyed her scoring efficiency, she finished the first half 4-for-15 but with 19 points thanks to eight free throws.
In the second half Clark’s shots began to fall more often. She scored 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
Czinano’s hyper efficient 22 points resulted from 11 shots. Her efficiency stems from her work off the ball, where she fights to establish a deep post position before catching the ball. Isabelle Bourne, who led the Huskers with 16 points, spoke about the lesson her Nebraska teammates can learn from Czinano’s performance. “Just as a team we can’t allow her to get that low,” Bourne said. “It’s too easy for her. She’s too big in the paint to go straight up. When we play her again next time we’ll have to make sure that she doesn’t catch it that deep in the paint.”
Czinano shut down the paint on defense as well. Her size gave Big Ten Freshman of the Year Alexis Markowski trouble down low, and she essentially shut her down completely, holding her to 2-of-9 shooting. Markowski had blasted the Hawkeyes with a career-high 27 points in their previous matchup and was 6-for-7 from 3-point range, and she even outscored Iowa singlehandedly in the first quarter. Markowski was unable to duplicate that success today, because she only took two attempts from deep. It was a puzzling choice considering the difficulties that her shooting had presented not only for Iowa previously but for teams that Nebraska played earlier in the tournament.
Shelley and Sam Haiby combined for 30 points for the Huskers, but it took 33 shots to get them. That kind of efficiency won’t win games against an offensive juggernaut like the Hawkeyes. Shelley ended the tournament with 14 3-pointers, one away from tying the all-time record set by Penn State’s Kelly Mazzante in 2002.