April 14, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Caitlin Clark finishes her career home run, as Iowa defeats West Virginia

Caitlin Clark finishes her career home run, as Iowa defeats West Virginia

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kaitlyn Clark walked off the court at Carver-Hockey Arena a winner for the final time on Monday. But to do that, she and the Iowa Hawkeyes had to survive a nerve-racking defensive battle and win the kind of game they usually struggle with.

The highest-scoring team this season in Division I women's basketball (92.8 PPG in Monday's second-round game) had to fend off a West Virginia team that made Iowa State work for every point it got. The Hawkeyes scored just one basket in the fourth quarter. But they still moved on to the Sweet 16, and Clark and her fellow seniors said goodbye to the building they filled all season.

Iowa State, the No. 1 seed in Albany Region 2, beat No. 8 seed West Virginia 64-54. Clark scored 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists in her final home game, breaking another record in her historic season. She now has 1,113 points, passing former Washington Huskies star Kelsey Bloom for the most points in a Division I season.

She has already broken Plum's NCAA women's career scoring record, Lynette Woodard's major college women's career record and Pete Maravich's overall record at DI. But all the hype about her individual accolades wouldn't have meant much to Clark if things had ended badly on Monday.

It seems like this could happen for most of the match. Before Monday, the Hawkeyes were 3-8 in games in which they scored fewer than 70 points in Clark's career. That included a 64-62 second-round loss to Creighton in 2022, Clark's second season. Iowa State was ranked No. 2 at the time, and Creighton was No. 10.

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Clark said that discomfort has been one of the greatest motivators in her career.

“I don't think my career is developing this way [did] “If we don’t lose to Creighton,” Clark said. “I don't think we went to the Final Four last year…I don't think we won that game tonight. That was probably the lowest point of my career, and you have to sit with that for a whole year to even get a chance to play Georgia at home.”

Last season's NCAA second round game against the Bulldogs was also very close. Iowa State did not back down until the last minute, and won 74-66. Monday was the third year in a row that hearts were beating among the full crowd at Carver-Hawkeye for a second-round game.

“This is one of the toughest rounds in the NCAA tournament,” Clark said. Iowa State's Big Ten rival, Ohio State, faced that in an upset loss to Duke on Sunday. “Everyone is really good. You are expected to win. You are on your own court. You have all the pressure in the world. They have absolutely nothing to lose if they come here and upset us.”

“Let's win one and then send Caitlin Clark packing,” Mark Kellogg, in his first season at West Virginia, had cheekily told his team and Mountaineer fans on Selection Sunday after seeing the bracket.

He only intended to motivate his players, but it leaked out into the open. Kellogg said in Friday's news conference before the first round that he has full respect for Clark and Iowa, and he didn't mean anything negative. But the truth is, the Mountaineers almost beat the Hawkeyes.

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“I'm very proud of our team, the resilience — that's been our word all year,” said Kellogg, who took over for Don Plitzweit, who stayed for just one season at West Virginia before leaving for Minnesota.

“I thought that defensive effort tonight was tremendous and special. And to do some things statistically for this team – despite their offensive strength – was a credit to our players. Of course, I hope we can do that.” “I made some extra shots and made some extra plays.”

The Mountaineers held the Hawkeyes to just 6 points in the second quarter and 26 in the first half, both Iowa State season lows for a quarter and a half. Iowa State had just 7 assists in the game, the program's lowest total in a win since 2016. Iowa State only made one field goal in the fourth quarter, but knocked down 14 free throws.

The large discrepancy in free throws is highlighted in the penalty area score, as Iowa took 25 of 30, and West Virginia 3 of 5 from the goal line, but it reflected the style of play of both teams. Iowa State was the more aggressive driving team, and the Mountaineers didn't attack the heart of the Hawkeyes' zone as much, settling more on outside shots.

“I think this was one of the best defensive teams we've seen all year,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I'm very proud of our team for only having six turnovers in the second half against that defensive pressure. That keeps you composure, especially when they're tying things up. We found a way to win in a different way, and we won with our defense tonight.”

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In fact, the Hawkeyes didn't flinch when the score was tied 52-52 with just over two minutes left in the game. Junior guard Sydney Affolter had a three-point play, giving Iowa enough breathing room to close out the game.

Next up for Iowa State is No. 5 seed Colorado, the same team the Hawkeyes faced last season in the Sweet 16. Iowa State won that game 87-77 on its run to the Final Four.

Some of her senior teammates shed some happy tears after Monday's game, but Clark was all smiles. She took some time to enjoy the atmosphere of the arena where she was so beloved over the past four seasons while enjoying one of the greatest careers in the history of college hoops.

“I wish I could have been on the field for a while and soaked it all up a little longer,” Clark said in the Iowa locker room afterward. “But I don't think there's a better way to come out of it than just a gritty, resilient win. Honestly, it was almost the opposite of Iowa basketball in a way, but I think that's what makes it sweeter. Our defense was really good, and it doesn't always give people away.” A lot of credit to our defense.

“That was the reason we won tonight. We didn't make a lot of shots, but at this point all that matters is staying in and getting ahead, and that's exactly what we did.”