- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s somewhat rare to hear coaches acknowledge they would rather be facing a different opponent, but Iowa Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said just that before taking on the Creighton Bluejays in the second round of the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
“I was actually hoping to play Colorado,” Bluder said Saturday of the No. 7 seed, which fell to the No. 10 Bluejays in the first round. “I thought we matched up with Colorado a little bit better, because with Creighton playing a five-guard offense, basically, it’s harder for us to defense them.”
That statement proved prescient, as things played out like a nightmare scenario for No. 2 seed Iowa in Sunday’s 64-62 second-round loss to Creighton. The teams have played each other in preseason scrimmages the past several years and knew what to expect from each other Sunday. But Creighton got the best of the Hawkeyes for most of the game.
Iowa struggled to defend and rebound in the upset, and also had a difficult day offensively, getting its lowest point total in star guard Caitlin Clark’s two seasons in Iowa City. What went wrong for the Hawkeyes? What went right for Creighton? And what’s next for both?
What happened to Iowa on the boards?
The Hawkeyes got smoked there, and it was a major factor in the game. The smaller Bluejays run a five-out offense and are used to the long rebounds that often produces, plus they do a terrific job of tipping rebounds to teammates.
“Rebounding is a huge focus, not in just this game but in every single game throughout the year,” Creighton’s Payton Brotzki said. “Even this morning, we talked about it a lot. Super proud of us for getting that done.”
The Bluejays finished with a 52-37 advantage on the boards, led by Morgan Maly’s 13. Creighton had 19 second-chance points to Iowa’s eight.
“In games we’ve lost, rebounding has been a pretty big issue for us, and it was tonight,” Clark said. “When people get more opportunities — basically double you up on opportunities to shoot the ball — it’s going to be really hard to win a basketball game. And the O-boards that they did get, they executed and basically scored on most of them, and that hurt.
“At the same time, we didn’t crash to the best of our ability to get those second-chance opportunities, as well.”
Iowa center Monika Czinano agreed: “That is something that needs to improve for our team. Something that has improved this year but can go even further.”
How did the Bluejays hold Clark to her lowest point total of the season?
Creighton rotated defenders Tatum Rembao, Molly Mogensen and Rachael Saunders on Clark to keep them fresh, and they made everything she did hard. Clark is very used to this type of defense; it is what she faces nearly every game. But Creighton just never let up. And Iowa’s other guards weren’t able to make enough shots to loosen the stranglehold the Bluejays put on Clark, whose 21.0% shooting (4-of-19) was the second worst of her career.
“There were going to be times in transition where other people were going to have to take her,” Creighton coach Jim Flanery said. “We just felt like our best chance was to rotate defenders on her, try to keep the ball out of her hands, especially late [in the] shot clock, make it difficult for her to catch, and then just be vertical at the rim. Don’t bail her out; show your hands to the officials.
“I thought they let us play at both ends. I thought both games this weekend, the officiating was consistent in terms of I thought they called verticality pretty well.”
Bluder was less pleased with the officiating, although she credited how well the Bluejays played.
“I do believe that that game was called differently than what we’ve seen all year, and I really think that’s unfortunate,” Bluder said. “We average going to the free throw line 18 times; we go eight tonight. We averaged 34 fouls being called in [our games]; 22 were called tonight. It’s pretty frustrating when an NCAA championship game is called completely different than the 30 games that prepared you for this point, and that is very frustrating.
“But I don’t want that to take away anything from Creighton’s excellent preparation and their excellent performance.”
What did Creighton do better than Iowa offensively?
Other than the aforementioned dominance in second-chance points, the Bluejays also outshot the Hawkeyes from behind the arc, making 10 of 34 3-pointers compared to Iowa’s 5 of 22 (22.7%). Iowa entered the game averaging 7.5 treys and shooting 35.5% from long range.
“Both teams missed opportunities,” Flanery said. “Emma [Ronsiek] missed that layup late, Tatum missed that wide-open layup late. But Iowa missed a lot of wide-open 3s. I don’t think either team probably played as well offensively as their best. Pressure has something to do with that, too.”
What’s next for Iowa?
This one really hurts for the Hawkeyes, who tied for the Big Ten regular-season title, won the Big Ten tournament and got sellout crowds for both NCAA tournament early-round games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Anything less than a repeat of last season’s Sweet 16 performance was going to be a disappointment. There won’t be a potential showdown with No. 1 seed South Carolina in the Elite Eight, or a chance for fans to see Clark and the Gamecocks’ Aliyah Boston on the same court.
Things that Iowa struggled with all season were exploited by Creighton in Sunday’s loss. Iowa mostly relies on outscoring foes, averaging 84.9 PPG going into Sunday, and giving up 70.4. The formula worked well enough for Iowa to win its Big Ten titles. But if this team wants to get to a Final Four for the second time in program history, it will have to defend better.
Clark will be back for her junior season, and Czinano has announced she is returning for a fifth year or “super senior” season, allowed because of the 2020-21 blanket eligibility waiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They will remain the Hawkeyes’ building blocks, but Iowa might need to go to the transfer portal for reinforcements, especially in the post.
Big Ten Player of the Year Clark still had a spectacular season, and Sunday’s loss doesn’t change that. But to fully maximize her career at Iowa, she is going to need a little more help.
What’s next for Creighton?
The Omaha, Nebraska-based Bluejays had a dream trip to Iowa City, with Iowa transfer Lauren Jensen beating her former team with 19 points Sunday, including the dagger 3-pointer with 15 seconds left.
After finishing 15-5 in the Big East, Creighton was upset 66-65 by Seton Hall in the league tournament quarterfinals. Rather than get down about that, the Bluejays regrouped for the NCAA tournament and have knocked off two Power 5 teams, Colorado and Iowa, to make their program’s first Sweet 16. They will face either No. 3 seed Iowa State or No. 6 Georgia at the Greensboro Regional.
“Flan told us before the game that it’s unconditional love no matter what happens, so I think that can be a statement for the whole season,” Brotzki said. “It has been the most fun and also the most successful year that I’ve ever played in basketball. I just think that’s a testament to how we have each other’s backs, how close we are as teammates, and it just translates to the court.”
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