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When UConn’s defense wore on Caitlin Clark, others stepped up

In Sports
April 06, 2024

CLEVELAND — Kate Martin has felt peaceful throughout the NCAA tournament. The fourth quarter of a tie game against 11-time national champion Connecticut in the Final Four was no different.

It didn’t matter that she hadn’t shot the ball well, or that she committed a few bad turnovers. Nor did it matter that Caitlin Clark, the superstar most view as Iowa’s hero, wasn’t hitting transition 3s in droves. Martin knew their season wasn’t going to end because this team is confident in itself, each other and Iowa basketball.

“We stayed really level-headed. We stayed poised,” Martin said. “Because we’ve been in tough situations before and we know that we can score in a hurry when we need to.”

They also know the team is more than Clark, much as head coach Lisa Bluder said 30 hours prior. That proved prophetic as Clark had to work hard for what is, by her standards, a modest night of 21 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four turnovers in a 71-69 win over UConn.

“Going to the national championship game, everybody’s stepping up,” Clark said. “It’s not just me. It’s not just one player. That’s not what this is. We wouldn’t be at this point right now if it was just one player. And everybody comes up and makes really big plays when we need them.”

Iowa basketball is Martin hitting tough shots in the fourth quarter after she struggled in the first three. It is Sydney Affolter stepping up after serving as a sixth player all season, snagging the offensive rebound that sealed a repeat berth in the national championship game. It is Gabbie Marshall making everything tough for former Naismith winner Paige Bueckers. And it is Hannah Stuelke setting them on the proper course early by leading the scoring attack.

“If you had given me the stat sheet without the final score before the game, I would have said we won the game,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said.

Iowa's Hannah Stuelke helps up Caitlin Clark during their win over UConn on Friday. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Iowa’s Hannah Stuelke helps up Caitlin Clark during their win over UConn on Friday. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Stuelke hit all three shot attempts for six points in the first half to keep Iowa in contention as Clark struggled from distance and was 3-of-11 with only a few layups. The sophomore finished with a team-high 23 points shooting 9-of-12. It was only the second time since Feb. 12, 2023, that a player other than Clark led the team in scoring. That other time was Stuelke’s 47-point game in February.

“She did a tremendous job of getting us buckets when some of us guards were struggling to score at times,” Martin said. “I thought she did a good job taking them off the bounce and finishing around the rim.”

Iowa entered the half trailing by six despite a poor first half and tied the game at 51 heading into the final 10 minutes. Stuelke made a layup and Clark hit a step-back 3, a rarity in this one, to go up by five. It stayed around a one-possession game until Stuelke scored in transition off a turnover and Martin took over, hitting tough turnaround jumpers in the paint. She had six points in the fourth after scoring five over the first three quarters.

“Kate Martin, what a warrior,” Bluder said. “That kid, she was not going to be denied in that fourth quarter.”

Affolter made key plays throughout, but none more than securing an offensive rebound off a rare free throw miss by Clark to finally finish the game.

“We never had any doubt in our mind and we just kept pushing and pushing,” Affolter said. “We kept our head down and we executed well in the second half.”

Marshall played another solid defensive game on a superstar. Bueckers scored 17 points while shooting 7-of-17 and going 3-of-8 on 3s. She had four rebounds, three assists and four turnovers.

“She doesn’t get enough credit,” Bluder said. “She guards one of the best players in the country and really challenges her quite a bit.”

Iowa's Gabbie Marshall looks on after drawing a crucial foul against UConn's Aaliyah Edwards in the final seconds of Friday's Final Four game. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall looks on after drawing a crucial foul against UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards in the final seconds of Friday’s Final Four game. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Confidence is the word Iowa players most often use about each other and for each other: instilling confidence in Stuelke that she can play with the best posts in the country; confidence that Marshall will make a final defensive play if needed; and confidence that the players around Clark are just as capable.

And for Martin, confidence that Iowa would make it to the final day of practices allowed by the NCAA this season. Assistant head coach Jan Jensen said she’s seen the peacefulness in Martin, who wants to be a coach, during this postseason and they have long had fun with the fact they want to keep practicing.

“I think the overriding thing in my opinion, I think the team feels like the coaches do, [that] you want to win because you want the whole prize, but you really don’t want it to end,” Jensen said. “And when that can motivate you alongside, it’s just a special group.”

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