March Madness: How Iowa has taken the pressure off Caitlin Clark as the Final Four spotlight grows
DALLAS — Iowa’s players are living a dream.
Gabbie Marshall’s Snapchat memories reminded her she was with her AAU team at the 2018 Final Four when Arike Ogunbowale hit those buzzer-beaters for Notre Dame. Monika Czinano remembers idolizing Lindsay Whalen, “a god” in her home state of Minnesota who took the Gophers to their only Final Four appearance. Caitlin Clark dreamed of this when she was a little kid, stayed home to do it and received a text from her mom, Anne, on Wednesday that said she felt like she was “stuck in your dream.”
Five years later, they’re the ones running out to cheers during open practices on Thursday at American Airlines Center. The Hawkeyes faithful who have traveled well from Iowa City to Seattle and down to Dallas roared for each name, but none louder than Clark, their newly named Naismith and Associated Press Player of the Year award winner for whom the spotlight continues to widen.
It’s tough to say Clark’s profile has risen in the last week, given it started the season so high, but it has. The 6-foot junior point guard plays some of her best games against the highest competition. She dropped a record 41-point triple-double in an Elite Eight game. Her logo 3-pointers are shared far beyond the women’s basketball circles. While the men’s tournament heads into its big weekend sans any big names, college basketball fans are turning to the women’s game for their star power.
It can be a lot, particularly as women’s basketball’s profile continues its sharp ascension. When Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder was asked what people could expect from Clark against the best in the nation, No. 1 overall seed South Carolina, she said she really just wanted to “take the pressure off of Caitlin.”
“She just came in here and received all these awards this week,” Bluder said. “She knows a lot of eyes are going to be upon her, and I want everybody else to step up and help carry that weight for her because that’s a lot. That’s a lot for a 20-year-old.
“So I’m just going to try to take the focus off of her as much as I can and put it on the rest of my team because they want to kind of help shoulder that.”
Teammates shouldering more pressure is why Iowa is even here. Clark, whose scoring output shadows her elite ability to find open teammates and create offensive opportunities off rebounds, can’t win a national championship alone in a team sport. Nor can Czinano, Clark’s favorite target in the post, for that matter.
It will take everyone on the roster, and so far the production from Marshall, Kate Martin, McKenna Warnock and the reserves has been there.
“It’s going to be Iowa versus South Carolina, and that’s who’s going to win the game,” Clark said. “It’s not going to be one player who’s going to win the game. I’m lucky enough to have four really good teammates on the court with me at the same time.”
Clark will still get hers, potentially foreshadowed again by hitting 3-pointer after 3-pointer in transition drills during practices on Thursday. When “Caitlin” cheers from fans went on too long, she smiled and gave them a quick wave between shots. Phones changed directions from the stands as she did on the court.
Those 27.3 points per game that helped build that attention are because of her team, not purely the individual effort. Clark’s logo 3s, view of the court for even a crack of an open passing lane and shot-making from almost anywhere open things up even more for teammates, who have started alongside each other for more than 90 games.
“People have to really pick their poison,” Czinano said. “They can really clog the paint. And then we have Gabbie and McKenna and Caitlin who are really doing their thing out there. Or they can choose to respect them for their game and leave me more open.”
Marshall reached double-digit points with multiple 3s in big tournament wins against Georgia and Louisville despite averaging 6.2 points per game in the regular season. Forward Hannah Stuelke and guard Molly Davis have filled in crucial reserve minutes, though even without them Iowa was able to eke out that victory against a tough Georgia defense.
To take the pressure off of Clark — if that’s even reasonable since teammates have said the star puts a lot of pressure on herself — the rest of Iowa will have to play up to its No. 1 offensive standing (87.6 ppg). Bluder said a key will be boxing out early and players other than Clark hitting 3s. It’s how they made it to Dallas as players, and they don’t plan to change that other than to be their best.
“[We’re] just going in there knowing it’s going to be a battle, knowing it’s going to be physical,” Marshall said. “Being able to value the ball and know we have to take outside shots and help Caitlin.”
Czinano said they plan to do what they’ve always done: step into their roles and be themselves.
“We don’t have to change this for this game,” she said.
Iowa is a fan favorite with a National Player of the Year, Assistant Coach of the Year Jan Jensen and all-Big Ten honorees. The Hawkeyes are a No. 2 seed with the résumé that could have fit a No. 1 spot. But on Friday, they’re the underdogs against the tall and talented South Carolina. It’s not unlike the other times this season they’ve faced a Coach of the Year (Indiana’s Teri Moren) or potential WNBA lottery picks. As many coaches and players have said this month, the pressure is a privilege.
“We’ve gone up against some really tremendous teams,” Clark said. “Obviously, we know South Carolina is taller than anybody we’ve ever played. They haven’t lost a game all season. We’re just going to be us and believe that we can win, and that’s all you can do.”