By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – How’s this for a way to start the new year in the Big Ten: Iowa was running and passing with precision, Caitlin Clark was hot from everywhere and delivering pinpoint passes to teammates who sometimes weren’t even open except in her mind’s eye, and Gabbie Marshall defended Minnesota’s best player, Mara Braun, like her life depended on it.
All of that combined to give the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes a 94-71 victory over the Gophers Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I think it’s easy to get up for a game after Christmas, especially when you have a crowd like we had today,” Clark said. “Truly a sold-out crowd that was very into it. It was loud, just a fun environment for us to play in.”
Under the watchful eye of the jacked-up crowd, Iowa (13-1, 2-0) bolted from the gates and never trailed, building a lead as big as 32 points in the fourth quarter before substitutions came in to polish off this gem.
“I was really happy with the way we came out and executed,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I thought our team was really focused. They knew the scout really well. I think we took advantage of some things that we were really trying to stress.”
“We took this team very seriously,” Clark said. “They’re a young team, but they’re really good. I think, honestly, the start to the game, getting up nine or 10, was huge for us, and really they kind of struggled to get back from that point.”
The Gophers are one of the best shooting teams around, but they struggled throughout the game. They shot 33 percent in the first three quarters of the game.
Most notable was Marshall’s defense of Braun, the leading scorer averaging 20 points per game. Braun barely scored at all when Marshall was the primary defender. She scored seven of her 15 points in the final quarter when others were guarding her.
Marshall limited her shooting to 4-of-16 overall, and Braun made none of her five 3-point attempts. She entered the game averaging 41 percent behind the arc and 45 percent overall.
The shots that Braun did get were almost always off balance. Marshall played an exhausting 30 minutes, and she was working every second. Marshall wasn’t made available for post-game interviews, but her coach and teammates knew how much she contributed to the victory.
“Gabbie’s defense was spectacular today,” Bluder said. “She did a great job of trying to keep the ball out of her hands, and when she did get it, it was a rough shot. There was no space in between her (and Braun). I just think she made it really hard for her all night long.”
Marshall led the team in the plus/minus category that indicates how the team played while that player is on the floor. Iowa was 30 points better than Minnesota with Marshall on the floor.
Clark had another magnificent performance, scoring 35 points, making eight 3-point shots (in 16 attempts) and distributing 10 assists. She could have had a bunch more assists if teammates had finished the plays, but she did claim the Big Ten career assist record during the game, passing Sammy Prahalis of Ohio State and Samantha Logic of Iowa.
Clark gave off an aura that this was going to be one of those games. She shot confidently from all areas of the court and especially from behind the arc. She made three 3-pointers to start the third quarter to effectively blunt a Minnesota spurt after halftime.
Iowa hadn’t been able to gear up its transition game in recent outings, but it was on full display against Minnesota. Clark cited Iowa’s stout defense as a key to getting the fastbreak going. Add in the rebounding and quick outlet passes and you have a happy crowd and satisfied coaches.
Hannah Stuelke was often the beneficiary of Clark’s passes in transition. Stuelke made 9-of-10 shots and finished with 19 points and eight rebounds.
“Caitlin finds me a lot; she’s a great passer just like the rest of the girls on the team,” Stuelke said. “They do a great job getting me the ball.”
Stuelke showed off post moves and also drove by Minnesota center Sophie Hart from the high post. Hart had the advantage in height at 6-5 and bulk, but Stuelke was quicker and played like she meant business.
Probably the signature play of the game came in third quarter. Clark snagged the rebound and started up court. Stuelke was running the floor closely accompanied by Minnesota’s Braun and Hart. Clark was near midcourt and fired a bounce pass from the right side to Stuelke, who was just emerging from her escort. Stuelke put it in, and the crowd went nuts. Stuelke was asked if she thought that pass would get to her.
“Oh yeah, she can do anything,” Stuelke said.
“I saw it coming; she was going to get open,” Clark said. “She’s fast. Transition offense is where I’m at my best. I think it’s when our team is at its best. Hannah runs the floor so well, and I could kind of see she had kind of a step on her girl. Maybe it was right next to her for a second, but I had a lot of faith that Hannah would kick it into gear if I threw it down there for her.”
Iowa out-rebounded Minnesota by 11. It scored 15 second-chance points and had 48 points in the paint. Kate Martin added 13 points and six rebounds. Sydney Affolter had eight points and six rebounds. Iowa has won 14 in a row against Minnesota in Iowa City. The win gives the Hawks a 10-game winning streak.
Minnesota is 11-2, 1-1. Iowa plays host to Michigan State Tuesday at 8 p.m.