By John Bohnenkamp
Caitlin vs. Paige made for a nice storyline.
The storyline Iowa created for next season started with a loss to one of the elite programs in women’s basketball.
The reality was Saturday’s NCAA tournament regional semifinal in San Antonio was UConn vs. the Hawkeyes, and when you’re facing the top-ranked team in the nation, you have to be nearly mistake-free.
Not enough defense and rebounding made for too much UConn, and too much UConn isn’t good, particularly in a March setting.
Iowa’s 92-72 loss in San Antonio ended an impressive season for the Hawkeyes (20-10), who went from a roster of question marks back in November to a second consecutive run to the second weekend of the tournament.
“Oh, I can’t tell you how far this team has come from the beginning of the year,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
The Hawkeyes were at their best at the end of the season — they had won eight of their last 10 before this game. The starting lineup of freshman Caitlin Clark, sophomores Kate Martin, McKenna Warnock and Gabbie Marshall, and junior Monika Czinano snapped together at the right time, and left big expectations for the future.
“That’s the reason I came here, because there was a true belief we were going to make the Final Four someday,” Clark said. “We didn’t say we were going to do it in my first year. We knew it was going to be a process, we had to put all the pieces together. To see what we did this year with nobody believing in us, we believed in ourselves, everybody in the locker room, the coaches, the girls, we just kept believing. We had some tough losses but went back to work every single day and wanted to get better.
“I think that really showed at the end of the season, through the Big Ten tournament, obviously the NCAA tournament. To get to where we got is really something special.”
“We’re a young team,” Bluder said. “We’ll be back here. That’s what I told our team — ‘Do not hang your heads.’ We are extremely young, and we will be back.”
But they were here now, a 5 seed going against the top-seeded Huskies (27-1).
This was billed all week as a matchup between Clark, the nation’s leading scorer, and Bueckers, like Clark a freshman guard who is in contention for national player of the year honors.
Both were skittish early. Clark finished with 21 points, while Bueckers had 18, but Clark missed 14 shots, Bueckers had 11.
“Well, I think the fact that there was so much hype put on those two kids, part of it was unfair, but it comes with the territory,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I get that. But like I told the team before the game, I said in all these matchups of players that get all the hype, it usually comes down to somebody else and something else.”
The somebody else was UConn guard Christyn Willams, who had a game-high 27 points. Guard Evina Westbrook had 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
The something else was the Huskies having a 42-25 rebounding edge, including 15 offensive rebounds, and getting 14 second-chance points compared to just four for the Hawkeyes.
“You’re right, the offensive rebounds really hurt us,” Bluder said. “We did not box out. That’s been a theme for us all year. We’ve got to get better at it. It gives us a lot of good film to show and work on it during the off-season.”
Iowa’s defense, which came in ranked 336th in the nation in scoring defense and 307th in field-goal percentage defense, gave up 40 UConn field goals on 54.8 percent shooting.
Still, Iowa was within 77-68 with 6:58 to play.
“Yeah, obviously I don’t think the score really indicated how the game really ended,” Clark said. “Obviously kind of ballooned there a little at the end. We really stayed with them, kept fighting, kept knocking down shots. I think if we clean up a few more things, a couple more shots fall down for us, a couple more things go our way, I think we’re right there, a two to four-point game really.”
“I mean, the final score is not indicative of how close this game was,” Bluder said. “We won the third quarter (Iowa outscored the Huskies 26-23). It’s 12 points (down with) five something to go in this game. We have four turnovers in the last five minutes. They did a great job of using the clock, then scoring at the end of the clock. That’s unfortunate because we kind of melted down that last four or five minutes, really didn’t show everybody how close of a game that really was.”
Iowa got 20 points from Warnock, 14 from Czinano and 12 from Marshall.
Bluder praised the Hawkeyes for how they got to this point, especially during a season playing in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a hard year as far as the pandemic and testing all the time, having those extra responsibilities, not being able to be together at team functions like we usually are,” Bluder said. “I am so proud of our young team for navigating all of that. It’s amazing.”
Now it’s a question of how the Hawkeyes can navigate the expectations that are coming, especially with what they have coming back.
“I think being so young, that just shows we have so much more to work for, but we’re so close,” Clark said. “I think that’s just something we can feed on the rest of the season, the next few seasons down the road. I think that’s what we’re going to work on in the off-season, look back, what do we need to improve, and get better at. Having this offseason is going to be so important for us especially returning our whole starting five and a solid bench as well, just to improve in every single area that kind of got exploited this season.
“I’m excited. We’re all going to get back to work, I know we are going to work super hard. I think the future is super bright.”
“I believe wholeheartedly that we have just touched the surface and this team can go farther in the NCAA tournament than we did this year,” Bluder said. “I believe that completely.”
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark drives to the basket against UConn’s Evina Westbrook in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)