IOWA CITY — No. 2 Indiana women’s basketball did just about all it could. It refused to lay down in countless deficits and clawed its way back to take the lead with 1.5 seconds remaining, but all the effort wasn’t enough. Instead, college basketball’s poster child stepped up.
No. 6 Iowa junior guard Caitlin Clark ran off a double screen to the right side of the court and found herself open, squaring up and heaving a leaning 25-footer. The ball seemed to hang in the air for ages before rattling around the rim and sinking through the net. In an all-time ending in a back-and-forth battle, Clark’s 3-pointer proved one was just enough to help the Hawkeyes beat the Hoosiers 86-85.
“That last play there, Chloe just gets tripped a little bit and it could’ve gone either way,” head coach Teri Moren said after the game. “It’s a 40-minute game, and there’s a lot of reps in there we all wish we could have back. It never comes down to one play.”
Clark’s game-winner was just the icing on an outstanding performance. The National Player of the Year front-runner scored 34 points, collected nine rebounds and assists and just two turnovers, guiding the Hawkeyes all game.
Last time against Indiana, an 87-78 Hoosier win on Feb. 5, Clark struggled by her standards. She scored 35 points but did so on 28 shot attempts and turned the ball eight times, tied for her season high. Today, she played the game at her own pace.
“I knew we probably weren’t going to win if I shot 28 times again, so I was trying to take the ones that I really needed to. Especially in the second half I penetrated the ball a lot more,” Clark said. “Coach Bluders said preparing for this game we have to take care of the basketball. They’re too good to give free possessions. Two turnovers is really good.”
Just as Clark’s night ended on a 3-pointer, it started on one. The Hoosiers scored first, but Clark connected on her first attempt, propelling the Hawkeyes into a 13-0 run to gain control early. Clark remained a dual threat, adding 5 more points and dishing out three assists in the first quarter.
She replicated the same stat line in the second quarter, weaving through Indiana’s usually stout defense to find good looks. As Indiana’s primary defender on Clark, junior guard Chloe Moore-McNeil struggled to find the same success she did against Clark the first time around. A mid-range floater from Clark put Iowa up one to enter halftime, encapsulating who had controlled the game early.
“We had a couple things defensively that happened to us, just mishaps and missteps, that we had prepped for and didn’t do a very good job of,” Moren said.
Out of the break, the Hoosiers prevented Clark from getting the clean looks she had in the first half, but it came at a cost. Moore-McNeil picked up three fouls in the third quarter, putting her at four total and eliminating Indiana’s best perimeter defender to guard Clark physically. Senior forward Mackenzie Holmes fouled twice in the period to put herself at three total.
With Indiana’s best perimeter and inside defenders in foul trouble, Clark attacked. She made three trips to the free throw line in the third frame, making five of six attempts. Indiana was in trouble, but it continued to hang around entering the fourth quarter.
Ironically, the last frame was Clark’s lowest-scoring period. Prior to her heroics, she had 4 points on four attempts. Indiana sent more double teams her way and managed to guard Clark cautiously but strongly. After repeatedly falling into deficits, the Hoosiers took a 2-point lead with 1.5 seconds remaining. Clark had been scoreless for eight minutes.
Often times, it’s easy to tell when things are going someone’s way. As the crowd anxiously awaited, that feeling hung in the air for Iowa’s superstar. When Clark managed to get the ball from the inbound play, what happened next seemed destined.
Sunday provided a storybook ending for Iowa, but Indiana is writing a trilogy. Even with the loss, the Hoosiers had the 1-seed locked up for the Big Ten Tournament and are likely to be a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The regular season is over, but Indiana is far from done.
“Today was about closing the chapter and closing it the right way. Unfortunately, the ending of this chapter wasn’t how we wanted it to end,” Moren said. “But another book comes out next when we go to the Big Ten Tournament.”