March Madness: Too much UConn firepower ends Iowa women's basketball season in Sweet 16
In an attempt to slow down the runaway storyline regarding Saturday's freshmen showdown, Caitlin Clark emphasized this week that top-seeded Connecticut has "more than just Paige Bueckers."
Iowa got a front-row seat to exactly that.
With Clark and Bueckers short on first-half buckets, this Sweet 16 matchup quickly became a battle of which team had more outside its freshmen phenoms. That honor went to the Huskies, which simply brought too much firepower for Iowa to handle. The end result was a 92-72 UConn win at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
"The final score is not indicative of how close this game was," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "We won the third quarter. It's a 12-point game with (about four minutes) to go, and then we have four turnovers (down the stretch). UConn did a great job of using the clock and then scoring at the end of the clock.
"That's unfortunate because we kind of melted down that last four or five minutes and really didn't show everybody how close of a game that was."
With many viewing this as a UConn rout waiting to happen, the Hawkeyes held on longer than most Huskies' opponents have through this dominant run. However, Iowa was always going to need a flawless product to make UConn nervous. The Hawkeyes showed their worth in spurts, climbing within single digits three times in the third quarter and twice in the fourth. But all the Huskies weren't going to stay quiet on this day.
All-Big East guard Christyn Williams took control with 27 points on 12-for-23 shooting. Evina Westbrook more than doubled her season scoring average with 17 points. Aaliyah Edwards had no trouble transitioning to the starting lineup (18 points on 9-for-11 from the field).
Those reinforcements gave Bueckers time to heat up — and she did en route to 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
To her credit, Clark did too. After a 2-for-11 first half where her only trey was an awkward bank shot, the Dowling Catholic product erupted for 12 third-quarter points. She ended a decorated freshman season with 21 on 7-for-21 shooting.
"I took maybe a few too many tough shots in the first half," Clark said. "But at the same time, I'm just not going to get too many open looks. A couple more go down, maybe it's a different story. In the second half, I was a little more patient. Obviously still missed a few here and there but made a few more.
"They're a good overall team. We knew what they were going to do on defense. They were going to deny me the ball, and I don't think it was anything new from what I've seen this season. That's what we've seen all throughout the Big Ten. Progressing throughout my career, it's going to be the same thing."
Offensive help came in bunches from McKenna Warnock, who tied a season-high with 20 points via three treys. Gabbie Marshall re-discovered her shooting touch with three first-half 3-pointers. And Monika Czinano added 14 despite an afternoon-long battle down low.
If anything, these Hawkeyes proved they can score with anyone. But a 42-25 deficit on the boards, which contributed to UConn's 14 second-chance points, gave the Huskies too many extended possessions. That's a losing combination against this women's basketball giant. The game eventually got away from Iowa in the fourth quarter.
It's a tough ending to an Iowa season full of progress. The Hawkeyes weren't supposed to sniff the NCAA Tournament, let alone March Madness' second weekend. Clark has a storied season under her belt, and Bluder has a transcendent star to build around.
This upward trajectory should continue into next season, even if Saturday went awry.
"We really stayed with them, kept fighting, kept knocking down shots,” Clark said. "And I think if we just clean up a few more things — a couple more shots fall down for us, a couple more things go our way — I think we're right there. It's a two- to four-point game, really.
"Being so young, that just shows how much more we have to work for. But we're so close. That's just something we can feed on the next few seasons down the road."
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.