Iowa Breaks Through
A great weekend for the Big Ten gets the conference into the Final Four
For the first time since 2015, there is a Big Ten team to look forward to in the third weekend.
In the end, it was the team that was, on paper, supposed to be here, but that doesn’t make it any less special.
NCAA Women’s Tournament Bracket
The Iowa Hawkeyes finished their run through the Seattle 4 region with a statement 97-83 win over Louisville. The Cardinals were a 4 seed, sure, but they are a program with five straight Elite Eight appearances fresh off a Final Four trip last season. This was a big win, and Iowa showed exactly what it is capable of.
Iowa scored 97 points against a top 20 defense, and did so with just nine points and two field goal attempts from star forward Monika Czinano (17.7 PPG this season).
McKenna Warnock (17 points) and Gabbie Marshall (14 points) combined for six made threes and showed why they are two of the best role players in the country, with Marshall also adding four steals.
But, of course, it was one player who went above her own astoundingly high expectations to deliver one of the greatest performances in NCAA Tournament history.
This was a game three seasons in the works, made by a player who has taken over this sport from day one. She finished with a stat line that has never been done, on the biggest stage of her career, to get Iowa to its first Final Four since 1993.
Friends, this was the Caitlin Clark show that was promised.
41 points. 10 rebounds. 12 assists.
A 40-point triple double for the first time in NCAA Tournament history, men’s or women’s. Hell, she even added three steals and did it on efficient shooting (11 of 19, 8 of 14 from three).
The one stain was nine turnovers, something that will be a major focal point for Iowa’s next matchup (we’ll get there), but focusing on that when all of THIS happened is foolish. Clark came into this season with criticisms about falling in the big moment. No matter what happens the rest of the way, those need to be thrown out and set on fire. She has been everything for the Hawkeyes in this tournament so far.
These are Clark’s stats through four tournament games. The percentages below are her rankings among all players in the NCAA Tournament. There’s just not much else to say about how good Caitlin Clark has been when her team has needed it most.
Louisville jumped out to an early 8-0 lead in this one, but Clark took over and ended the first quarter with 15 points to give the Hawkeyes a lead. The teams remained close throughout the first half, but a 30-16 third quarter from Iowa all but sealed it. The Cardinals battled a bit in the fourth, but the Hawkeyes kept them at bay and ended up with a comfortable margin in the victory.
The game prior, against Colorado, was a similar affair, but Iowa was actually down 40-39 at half. It was a 25-13 third quarter that made the difference in this one, as well as 31 points and eight assists from Clark. Her supporting cast was excellent here, though, with Kate Martin (16 points), Czinano (15) and Warnock (12) combining for 43 points in an 87-77 win.
Colorado is also a top 20 defense, according to Her Hoop Stats ratings. So, to reiterate, Iowa scored a combined 184 points against two of the best defenses in the country in a three-day span. Of note considering its next opponent (again, we will get there).
Iowa was one of three Big Ten teams to make the Sweet 16. It was also one of three Big Ten teams to make the Elite Eight, a true triumph for this conference.
Ohio State’s weekend was about as much as you could ask for.
The Buckeyes started it against UConn in the Sweet 16, something that had been a death sentence for 16 straight teams in this particular round. When the Huskies went up 10-2 early and 17-9 with 2:35 to go in the first, it came at the surprise of no one.
But then UConn got stuck at 17 points for a while. Like, a while: A grand total of 7:11 of game time, in fact. Ohio State matched that point total over that span, an out-of-this-world 17-0 run against this sport’s Goliath. The Buckeyes led the rest of the way, and UConn never got closer than a five-point margin.
This was no streaky shooting, fluke of a win against UConn. Ohio State came back from a slow start and thumped these Huskies in a 73-61 win. UConn turned the ball over 25 times against the Buckeyes’ vaunted press, and Ohio State made them pay over and over again.
Who led Ohio State in scoring against the mighty UConn Huskies to send the Buckeyes to their first Elite Eight in 30 years? A true freshman, of course.
Cotie McMahon is a different type of special player.
There has never been a moment too large for her all season long, and there’s not a defender on this planet that she’s backing down from. To say she has a relentless motor would be doing her a disservice: This motor is finding fuel from the Earth’s core and will not stop until the job is done.
McMahon had 23 points against UConn, taking an elite group of defensive talents to task all game long. Jacy Sheldon (17 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 10-10 FT) was also exceptional, but it is the way McMahon scores that is just jaw-dropping to witness.
Ohio State took that high into a matchup against No. 1 seed Virginia Tech, and the first half of this game was nothing short of superb. Both of these teams started unconscious from the field, ending the first 20 minutes with 93 combined points. Taylor Mikesell hit her first five attempts from the field, and she helped keep the Buckeyes in it, down 48-45 at half.
But in the second half, it became apparent that Ohio State simply has ran out of gas. Virginia Tech never trailed for a second this tournament heading into this matchup, and while the Buckeyes led against UConn much of the way, holding off an opponent like that took everything Ohio State had.
When the game slowed, it was Virginia Tech that found success, and through 49 combined points from stars Elizabeth Kilter and Georgia Amoore, the Hokies took down the Buckeyes 84-74.
Mikesell (25 points), Sheldon (19) and McMahon (18) scored all but 12 of Ohio State’s points in the game, but it was the defense that didn’t have the steam it did against UConn. The Buckeyes didn’t press nearly as much, and when they did, Virginia Tech easily broke through it. Whether that was Ohio State’s tank on “E” or Tech’s excellent preparation, the Buckeyes found themselves going home.
Still, what a season for this Ohio State team. First Elite Eight in 30 years, and doing it without Madison Greene or Sheldon for most of the year, is astounding. Getting there by taking down UConn is another thing entirely.
Last and most certainly not least, we had Maryland.
With broad strokes this weekend, and this whole tournament, was exactly what was expected out of the Terrapins: Three lopsided wins and a loss to South Carolina. And while sure, that is true, the context of these last two games is important.
I was in attendance for Maryland’s game against the Fighting Irish, and the final score does not do justice to the battle that this matchup was for much of the contest. Notre Dame led 32-31 at halftime, with Maryland stars Diamond Miller and Shyanne Sellers combining for just six points.
But this Terps team battled like they have all season, and came out flying in the second half. Maryland outscored Notre Dame 45-27 the rest of the way for a 17-point victory, led by 30 second-half points from Miller and Sellers. It was an exceptional turn, as this team just found a different gear to end up winning comfortably.
Then, of course, came the undefeated Gamecocks.
Maryland started this game about as well as it could have. Brenda Frese’s game plan was superb, it confounded South Carolina on offense, and the Terps were hitting their shots on the other end. Despite little from Miller or Sellers, Maryland led 21-15 after the first.
But here’s the thing: What Maryland did for 10 minutes is so, so hard to do for another 30. It took all-out effort to close out on the Gamecock shooters, attempt to contain the passes into the post and still get some rebounds over much taller players, all while playing some press defense and trying to force turnovers.
And it turned out to be too much, South Carolina outscored the Terps 23-9 in the second quarter, and while the Terps more or less kept the game at the same margin the rest of the way, they couldn’t get the stops they needed on defense to cut into the lead.
The Gamecocks won this game 86-75 after a very respectable Maryland effort. They did this because South Carolina is a worthy juggernaut, a true force that is smothering to try and stop. Dawn Staley is one of the best coaches in the sport, and this game showed me just how hard it is to beat her team right now.
I say that as a preface to what I’m about to say: The officiating in this game was an absolute disgrace, among the worst I’ve seen. Again, I want it to be clear that Maryland still likely loses this game with good officiating, but the lopsided whistle made sure that the Terrapins never had a chance.
The second whistle was a disaster, partially because South Carolina figured things out, but also partially because Maryland had almost every starter in foul trouble, largely on tick-tack calls that were not being called both ways.
Trying to contain South Carolina while in foul trouble is like trying to do open heart surgery with a hand tied behind your back: it was already hard enough before, but now it feels impossible.
It was still a single-digit game heading into the third quarter, and Abby Meyers was playing Maryland’s hero to keep it that way. The refs then made sure to throw her extremely weak third and fourth fouls in rapid succession. Then, the backbreaker, the final nail in the coffin, this completely asinine, unforgivable fifth foul on Meyers.
When the game was over, 26 fouls were called on Maryland players. Twelve were called on South Carolina players.
From Meyers and Miller, in ESPN’s story on the officiating:
Meyers fouled out early in the fourth quarter, while Miller was limited in the first half with foul trouble. Maryland was called for 26 personal fouls, while South Carolina was called for 12. After Miller got a question in her postgame news conference about dealing with the physical way the Gamecocks played inside, she responded, "It's funny how you say that when all the fouls were going one way, I felt like."
Meyers then chimed in, "So we were the more physical team, apparently."
And Miller continued, "So we were really physical, because apparently they were getting all the foul calls. That just shows we have heart, we have grit, and just because they're taller doesn't mean we can't bang. If y'all didn't see that we were banging today, I don't know what could show you that. Yeah, clearly we needed to be more physical, I guess, on the offensive side, because every time they hit us, nothing was called."
It was embarrassing to witness, and took steam out of what was shaping up to be an excellent game.
Still, for Maryland to even be here is astonishing. Miller was the lone returning starter from last year’s team, and losing Ashley Owusu and Angel Reese should have meant that the Terps were a few years away from being able to make this sort of run. Instead, Frese retooled the roster, this group found chemistry in the back half of the season and could only be stopped by the very best teams in the country.
Maryland could not stop South Carolina’s undefeated run, but can Iowa?
Her Hoop Stats is giving the Hawkeyes a 16.6 percent chance of doing it, with a projected score of 82-69. I think those are fair numbers to be working with, as it would take a whole lot for Iowa to pull this off.
For one, Iowa is not the defensive team that Maryland is, not in length, not in intensity. It’s certainly an area the Hawkeyes have improved in, but their strong suit is on offense.
The Hawkeyes have made light work of two great defenses in back-to-back games, but South Carolina is a different breed of great defense. This is one of the best defenses the sport has seen in a long time, with a dozen players that have length, athleticism and are downright terrifying to try and drive on.
Iowa will need to learn from Maryland’s successes, mainly forcing South Carolina’s bigs out of the paint to give players semi-open lanes to the hoop. The Hawkeyes can also learn from some of the Terps failures: 10 of 15 from the free throw line isn’t terrible, but any free points you can get on the Gamecocks become downright essential. Maryland also hit half of its threes, but only attempted 12 because South Carolina is so good at closing out on shooters. Iowa will need to find more attempts and, of course, hit them when they arrive.
Clark against this South Carolina defense will be fascinating to watch. Her range as a three-point shooter will be needed, because she will likely find almost no space anywhere but deep. Her playmaking abilities are unparalleled and gives the Hawkeyes a chance to find some open looks, but her turnover problems could spiral this out of control if she’s not careful.
The biggest area of concern I have is simple: How the hell is Iowa stopping anything in the paint? Czinano’s strengths are on offense and I fail to see a way the Hawkeyes slow down the likes of Aliyah Boston and Kamilla Cardoso, especially on the offensive glass.
This will need to be another vintage Clark performance, and shots will have to be falling at very impressive rates for Iowa to stay in this one. South Carolina is not a great three-point shooting team, and if the Hawkeyes can find a surge early, it could be hard for the Gamecocks to fight their way back. Iowa needs this to be a shootout though, because any version of a slowed-down game massively favors their undefeated opponent.
But no matter what happens, what a NCAA Tournament this has been for the Big Ten. It has been a delight to watch, and a delight to write about. I’m glad we aren’t on offseason content just yet.
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