Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Leistikow: 5 thoughts on Iowa women’s basketball, Caitlin Clark through 5 games

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IOWA CITY − The Iowa women’s basketball team responded to its first loss of the 2023-24 season by delivering a statement against visiting Drake on Sunday night, as if to calm outside worries and remind folks, “We’re (still) good.”

The second-ranked Hawkeyes scorched the nets for 75% shooting in the first quarter and wound up setting a program record for points in a half (64) in a 113-90 victory before 14,998 fans at sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The scintillating performance was much-needed after a hard-to-stomach 65-58 home setback to visiting Kansas State three nights earlier. That has so far been an out-of-character performance. The Hawkeyes (4-1) blasted Fairleigh Dickinson in the opener, 102-46; offered a determined win over then-No. 5 Virginia Tech in Charlotte, 80-76; then clobbered a very good Northern Iowa squad on the road, 94-53.

So, five games are in the books. A trip to a tournament in Estero, Florida, for three games – and a possible rematch with Kansas State – in three days is on deck, starting Friday.

Here are five thoughts about where this highly anticipated Hawkeye season stands so far.

Caitlin Clark’s 3-point shot had been off, but … it might be back again

Clark endured a 2-for-16 shooting night from 3 in Thursday’s loss to Kansas State, and she started 1-for-7 from deep Sunday.

No wonder she was pumping up the crowd in the second half after she canned all four of her 3-point attempts. As great as we all know the sensational Hawkeye senior is, it was important for her to see the basketball go through the net from deep.

“Honestly, I went back and watched all the film from Kansas State and most of my 3s I shot were good shots,” Clark said Sunday. “… Sometimes you have nights where they just don’t go in, and my coaches and teammates pumped into me like, ‘You’re one of the best shooters of all-time. Keep shooting it.’

“Obviously, I didn’t shoot it very well in the first half from 3, but I knew I would get it going there. It felt good to see a few go through the rim.”

Clark finished her night with 35 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and seven steals in 30½ minutes of action. Canning her last four 3s brought her season 3-point percentage up to 31.6%. That’s still below last year’s 38.9%, when she was the consensus national player of the year, but it’s nothing to get too worked up about.

In fact, Clark has been more lethal this year from 2-point range, wheeling and dealing inside. She has been great at finding creative ways to score when her deep shot might be off. She was 55.8% on 2-pointers a year ago, and after going 9-for-11 from 2 on Sunday, Clark is at 60.8% on 2s through five games.

Clark may have to score more than she did a year ago for this team. And she is, at a clip of 31.0 points per game (her average was 27.8 a year ago when she scored the fourth-most points in a season, at 1,055, in Division I women’s history) to go with 7.4 rebounds and 8.0 assists.

Maybe Clark’s ability to score closer to the rim will pay off in the long run of this long season that’s just getting started.


Caitlin Clark after Drake win: “Tonight, we got back to who we are.”

Hear from Caitlin Clark after Iowa’s 113-90 win over Drake.

Lisa Bluder can play the hot hand(s) on the wing

Iowa’s depth strength has certainly shown up at the “2” and “3” positions, with the Iowa head coach able to substitute freely. In addition to Molly Davis, who can fill in for Clark at the point or play as her sidekick, Bluder’s got four-year starters Kate Martin (career-high 25 points vs. Drake on Sunday after a goose egg vs. Kansas State) and Gabbie Marshall, of course.

But we’ve learned through five games that Sydney Affolter, Kylie Feuerbach and even Taylor McCabe (two first-half 3s vs. Drake) can provide a spark. Affolter hauled in 14 rebounds against Virginia Tech and is second on the team (to Clark) with 7.2 boards a game. Feuerbach scored eight points against the Hokies and an efficient seven vs. Drake; she looks bouncy coming off last year’s torn ACL.

This is the time of year for experimenting and seeing which lineups click. But with essentially seven guard/small forward-type players, that’s a lot of mouths to feed each night. Here is how the minutes have been distributed so far: Clark 163, Marshall 131, Davis 113, Martin 111, Affolter 107, Feuerbach 73 and McCabe 38.

“We have more depth this year than we’ve had in the past,” Bluder said of her wings. “And I think against a team like Drake, that’s really important because they do run you around so much. … If you can keep bringing people in, I think that’s really good.”


Caitlin Clark and Lisa Bluder assess Iowa women’s basketball’s tough loss to Kansas State

Hear from Caitlin Clark, Lisa Bluder and Molly Davis after the Hawkeyes’ loss to Kansas State.

Molly Davis has a chance to be a major player

During the 2020-21 season while at Central Michigan, Davis poured in an average of 20.1 points per game. And it wasn’t like she was a shot hunter; Davis canned 49% from the floor and 38% from 3-point range, really solid numbers. That year flanked averages of 14.3 as a freshman and 18.6 as a junior.

Then came the 5-foot-7 guard’s transfer to Iowa, and while she was a valuable part of the Final Four team, there were games in which she barely played. Davis averaged 3.8 points a game.

But now back as a fifth-year senior, using her COVID-19 bonus year of eligibility, Davis has scored in double figures in back-to-back games after hitting double digits just twice in her first 41 games as a Hawkeye.

Davis is looking more assertive. She scored 10 points in Thursday’s loss to Kansas State and got the start Sunday (her third) and scored just 5 seconds into the game on a breakaway layup after the tip-off. She had seven first-half points without missing a shot and finished with 10 points and three assists in 27 minutes.

With Gabbie Marshall’s shot off to a shaky start (three scoreless games, one with two points and one with 17), Davis’ role is that much more important.

“She made two 3s and then she starts the game with layup,” Clark said. “But also, Molly’s not afraid to defend anyone. Molly’s going to go out here and be aggressive. She’s not going to shy away from the moment. She’s had a lot of experience playing basketball.

“She’s a really, really great player. And it’s not somebody you want to leave open.”

Iowa’s post play remains spotty but there are encouraging signs

Replacing Monika Czinano wasn’t going to happen with one player. And after not landing a post in the transfer portal, success this season would be pinned on the Jan Jensen development program. Jensen’s renowned work with Iowa’s interior players is showing signs of progress but the results have been inconsistent. And that’s to be expected.

For instance, Hannah Stuelke has looked like a world-beater at times. She had 22 points on 9-of-10 shooting in the opener. Against Virginia Tech, she did a nice job defending one of the top centers in the country in 6-foot-6 Elizabeth Kitley. But she didn’t score in the second half against K-State and had only four points in 13 minutes against Drake while dealing with what Bluder said was a minor knee issue.

“With four games in eight days this week, if we could give her rest, it was an opportunity to give us rest,” Bluder said.

Sharon Goodman has been Iowa’s top true “5” so far, with Stuelke flexing between the “4” and “5” spots, depending on whether Iowa wants to play big or small. Goodman had 15 points Sunday and is averaging an even 10.0 so far. Considering she didn’t play two years ago and had 22 total points last season, that’s progress.

Addison O’Grady was thought to be the front-runner at center, but the redshirt junior didn’t even play against Virginia Tech in a “coach’s decision.” She’s logged only 13 points since scoring nine in the blowout opener.

“Sharon’s been doing a really good job for us,” Bluder said. “I like that we have three posts that we can kind of throw at people. That’s 15 fouls. Like I told Sharon (when she fouled out Sunday), ‘Why take ‘em home with you?’”

Five games and five reminders that this is a long season

Iowa will get a day off Wednesday in Florida, a chance to enjoy their travel resort before digging into practice Thursday and games Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Bluder knows this team needs to take moments to breathe. This is a long season, one that already has logged a lot of miles with the team’s summer trip to Italy and Croatia. And the Hawkeyes, after playing in the national championship game in April, are going to get the best shot from every opponent they face. Imagine the atmosphere awaiting in Ames on Dec. 6. Then in 18 Big Ten games plus the league tournament in January, February and March … all before the NCAA Tournament.

It’s important to have a level head, like Clark demonstrated when discussing the Kansas State loss.

“If you watch basketball, the best players in the world have bad games. Those teams have bad games, the Golden State Warriors have bad games,” Clark said. “You don’t judge a team by one game, good or bad. If anything, I think it’s a great learning lesson for our group. All three years I’ve been here, we’ve had some tough losses early in the year. But I think that’s what allows us to be really great at the end of the year.

“It’s not fun by any means. I don’t enjoy losing. I wish we didn’t lose. But I think it teaches this group a lot of things and ways we can get better. And it’s also a reminder that you have to show up every single night when you’re playing somebody, because people want to beat you. You’re the Iowa Hawkeyes. You were in the Final Four last year, and you kind of have a target on your back.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 29 years with The Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Sports Network. Join Chad’s text-message group (free for subscribers) at HawkCentral.com/HawkeyesTextsFollow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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