Clark, Iowa advance to Sweet 16 past WVU

Clark, Iowa advance to Sweet 16 past WVU

Iowa star Caitlin Clark knew what to expect from her opponent Monday night. Speaking to reporters on the eve of the No. 1 Hawkeyes’ round of 32 matchup with No. 8 West Virginia, Clark cited the Mountaineers’ defensive prowess as the first thing that jumped out on tape.

“They’re going to want to turn us over,” Clark said. “They’re one of those teams that really feeds off of turnovers. One turnover can turn into five for a team.”

Yet even the sport’s best player, knowing full well what was coming, can be thrown off by a vaunted press. In the first half, Clark recorded more turnovers (four) than assists (three), making only four of her 11 field goal attempts. Clark and the Hawkeyes, slowed by West Virginia’s physicality and full-court ball pressure (on both makes and misses), scored their fewest first-half points all season (26).

But the challenge of limiting Clark and her teammates is not a 20-minute endeavor. Iowa went on to win 64-54, grinding out a victory in the final home game for Clark and teammates Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall. In the third quarter, Clark took advantage of the slightest lapses by her opponent. She made four of her five shots and tallied 13 points. A two-point halftime lead grew to 10 entering the final period.

Though she also tallied six turnovers, Clark finished with 32 points and eight rebounds. She broke the NCAA’s single-season scoring record Monday with 1,113 points for the season, surpassing Washington’s Kelsey Plum (1,109).

The sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena serenaded Iowa’s starters in pregame introductions. It roared throughout the contest, whenever its seniors (or anyone else in a white uniform, for that matter) had successful sequences. But tensions built in the fourth quarter, when West Virginia opened the final frame on a 10-0 run to tie the score at 48 with 5:18 to play. Just over two minutes later, a pair of Clark free throws, her first points of the quarter, gave Iowa a two-point advantage. But West Virginia would level the score at 52 apiece, with merely 2:55 to go.

It wasn’t Clark, but junior Sydney Affolter who scored the most important basket of Monday’s victory. With 2:03 to play, the 5-foot-11 guard noticed an open lane and finished a hard left-hand drive before completing the and-1 opportunity.

The Mountaineers never drew any closer, as the Hawkeyes closed out the win on a 12-2 run. With the win, Iowa is returning to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. Like last year, they will play Colorado with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight.

West Virginia coach Mark Kellogg expected a raucous environment Monday, and the home crowd voiced its displeasure when foul calls went the road team’s way. Kellogg acknowledged, “We have not played in front of 15,000. That will be new.” To prepare, he said his team worked through some nonverbal cues instead of speaking (or shouting).

But it was foul trouble, not communication errors, that loomed throughout the second half. Six of West Virginia’s seven players picked up four fouls or fouled out. Though the Mountaineers held Iowa to only 22.7 percent shooting from three, they shot only 26.5 percent from 3-point range, missing 25 of their 34 attempts.

Like West Virginia in the round of 32, No. 5 Colorado is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the sight of Clark and the Hawkeyes. In last year’s Sweet 16, the Buffaloes led by a point at halftime, but surrendered a 15-2 Iowa run in the first five minutes of the second half — a cushion that Iowa didn’t relinquish.

In the moments after Iowa’s final home game of the season, Clark took in the adoring crowd alongside her teammates.

“I remember running out to our first sold-out crowd, and I got the chills,” she said Sunday. “Now I get to do that every single night. That’s never anything that has got old.”

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(Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes / The Register / USA Today)

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