By John Bohnenkamp
Caitlin Clark has found her way to the free-throw line throughout this season.
The Iowa sophomore guard has taken 129 free throws this season, seventh-most nationally. She has made 117, ranking third in the nation. Her 90.7 percent free-throw shooting leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th in the nation.
Her coach thinks Clark should be at the line more.
“She draws a lot of fouls and she takes a lot of contact and it’s not even like when she’s going to the rim,” Lisa Bluder said last week. “It’s when she’s cutting through the lane. Just watch as she cuts through the lane and watch the people holding her. Watch the people just I mean, chucking her as she goes to the lane. That’s the stuff that infuriates me that doesn’t get called because you can’t impede the progress of an offensive player and she’s certainly having that happen to her.
“Sometimes her arms are just scratched at the end of a game and so, it’s frustrating. But I think that’s the price you pay when you’re really really good. You have a target on your back.”
Clark has learned what to expect in her two seasons.
“Obviously I think teams’ goals are to be pretty physical with me,” Clark said. “Obviously I’m somebody they guard pretty tight the full length of the floor. I like to think I see pretty physical defense, no matter who we’re playing. I think that’s just kind of their goal, and kind of what they have to do.”
Clark got that education in physical play last season. She ranked seventh nationally with 151 free throws made and 13th with 176 attempts.
“I think people were very physical with me last year,” Clark said when asked if teams were being rougher with her this season. “I think I’m driving to the paint more. So maybe that’s part of the reason it seems like that, just because I am attacking the basket more and kind of getting my feet in the paint more where it does get more physical — more hand-checking, more arm-barring. It’s not something I haven’t seen before.”
Clark views her free-throw shooting, and that of the Hawkeyes, as another offensive weapon. Iowa leads the nation in free throw percentage at 85.4% and ranks 23rd with 276 made free throws.
“That’s something we work on every day is, you know, contact finishing,” Clark said. “We don’t just want the ball, we want the and-one. I think that’s always kind of been a part of my game — creating contact and using that to my ability. Whether it’s using my step-back (shot) or getting to the rim and finishing, I think it’s kind of something I’ve kind of gotten better at as time has gone on.
“Creating contact and getting to the foul line is pretty important for us, especially when we’re not making the (3-pointer) as well in certain games. So it’s definitely something I’ve been focusing on.”
The pain that comes with that contact, then, is something Clark expects.
“Certainly I have some bumps and bruises, but I think I could do a little better job staying on my feet at times,” Clark said. “Sometimes I am falling over when I don’t need to but that’s part of the game. I mean, it hurts for a second, but adrenaline kicks in and you’re fine. You know, it’s not anything I haven’t dealt with before. I think getting in the hot tub and cold tub and taking care of your body is super important.”
DEALING WITH THE SPOTLIGHT
Bluder talked last week about how she heard about a family from Columbia, Mo., that had traveled to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for last Sunday’s game against Illinois, just to watch Clark play.
“They wanted to see Caitlin and that was their Christmas present, getting this gift to come to our game to watch Caitlin play,” Bluder said.
Bluder told how ESPN reporter Holly Rowe told her the story of walking through an airport with ESPN colleague Rebecca Lobo, who is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame after a successful college career at Connecticut and a long career in the WNBA.
“She said, ‘I’m walking through the airport with Rebecca Lobo. And people come up to me and see Rebecca Lobo and they give me the camera and say, would you take a picture of me and Rebecca Lobo. And it’s kind of like, OK, when Rebecca Lobo’s light shines, it shines on me too,’” Bluder said.
“And it’s kind of that with Caitlin. When Caitlin’s light shines, it shines on all of us. Even if we have a supporting role, even if we’re holding the camera. It’s you know, it’s shining on everybody, and that’s good for our program. That’s good for the university. And it’s certainly good, you know, for all of us involved. Where Caitlin is right now is she’s bringing national attention to our program and it’s a good thing.”
ANOTHER MURRAY RUN
Iowa men’s coach Fran McCaffery has been using twins Keegan and Kris Murray together in the second half, and it’s leading to long “Murray runs” that have helped the Hawkeyes in the last two games.
The two combined to score 19 of the Hawkeyes’ 21 points in a late second-half stretch of the 68-51 win over Penn State. They scored 15 consecutive points — Kris had the first 10 and Keegan had the last five — in last Thursday’s 83-73 loss to Purdue.
“It’s really good for them from an offensive standpoint,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “When they stretch you out, they’re going to try to post one of them on your smaller guys. Then they’re going to take the other one on one of your bigger guys, take him out (of the inside).
“Their ability to make threes, their ability to drive the basketball and score, it really puts you in a bind. You have to pick your poison on what you want to do. They were driving it, getting layups, we were fouling them, they were making shots.”
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark reacts after scoring while being fouled in a game against Michigan State earlier this season. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)