THE MONDAY TIPOFF: Hawkeyes Find Their Big Ten Trophy

By John Bohnenkamp

Caitlin Clark has a list of goals posted in her locker, and one of those goals says, “Win a Big Ten championship.”

She saw that on Sunday morning when she arrived at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the game against Michigan.

Win, and the No. 21 Hawkeyes would either win the conference title outright or share it with Ohio State.

Lose, and the trophy that had arrived at the arena was going to go back to Ann Arbor with the sixth-ranked Wolverines.

Clark saw those words.

Win a Big Ten championship.

“I’m like, ‘OK, we’re here, this is our moment,’” Clark said.

It was the same message Clark and the Hawkeyes got from head coach Lisa Bluder.

“Coach Bluder said, ‘Just go take it,’” Clark said. “And that’s what we did, really.”

They took it with a 104-80 win in front of a sellout crowd of 15,056.

Took the trophy, and didn’t let it go.

Of course, where the trophy was during the post-game press conference, no one was sure.

“I think,” Clark said, “everyone wanted to take pictures with it.”

It was Iowa’s first conference title since 2008. The Hawkeyes shared it with Ohio State — the Buckeyes will be the top seed in this week’s tournament in Indianapolis, Iowa will be the 2 seed — but they have the silver hardware that goes with the crown.

“I’m just so thankful,” Bluder said. “This whole season has been amazing.”

There was no straight path to this crown.

The Hawkeyes dealt with COVID-19 issues — theirs and those of other teams — that led to postponements and schedule changes.

Injuries — Iowa played some games with just seven players in uniform.

And there was the hole the Hawkeyes dug for themselves. A February 6 road loss to Michigan, followed by a February 14 home loss to Maryland, made Iowa the caboose in the train of teams at the peak of the top-heavy conference.

“Everything we went through, we didn’t make excuses,” Clark said. “That’s not the type of team we are. We suffered some bad losses, that’s just how it is. We probably could have made it easier on ourselves to win a Big Ten title if we didn’t do that.

“But every team goes through that type of thing. That’s what we kept saying. You can’t make excuses.” 

The Hawkeyes would close the season with a fury. They swept Indiana in a two-games-in-three-days scheduling quirk caused by the Hoosiers’ own COVID-19 problems in January. They won at Rutgers, winning over a program that has struggled all season but somehow always finds a way to bruise the Hawkeyes.

And then there was this win.

Clark had 38 points — she dropped 46 on the Wolverines earlier this season — sailing in 3-pointers from all parts of the frontcourt. She had two in 23 seconds in the second quarter, two in 16 seconds in the third.

Her 3-pointers have this dynamic at Carver-Hawkeye — gasps at where they are shot from, a wild eruption if they go in, an audible disappointment if they don’t.

She had 11 assists, celebrating wildly on everyone, especially the 3-pointers she set up in the fourth quarter. There were six Clark rebounds, three steals.

Asked if this was her best game in two seasons with the Hawkeyes, Clark said, “Yeah, probably. I think I’ve had some good games, but we haven’t been able to pull out the win, so that kind of puts the damper on everything.”

Bluder has had star power before. The Hawkeyes are just a couple of seasons removed from the dominant post play of national player of the year Megan Gustafson, the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

There’s a difference in what Clark does, Bluder said.

“Caitlin is in the situation where she has the ball in her hands all of the time,” Bluder said. “When you have the ball in your hands all of the time, you can make an impact in the game, and you can also mess it up.”

When Bluder said that, Clark nodded with a knowing smile.

“There’s a lot of responsibility in that,” Bluder continued. “She has a direct effect on the game when she’s out there.”

It’s why Clark liked seeing the four 3-pointers from Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock and Gabbie Marshall go down in the fourth quarter. She had assists on three of those.

The Hawkeyes had a season-high 16 3-pointers. Clark had eight of them.

“The threes I shot were to keep us going, keep us alive, because we were in a hole there for a while,” Clark said.

Iowa trailed by 11 points in the first quarter, then outscored Michigan 56-34 in the second and third quarters.

“I’ve played a lot of basketball games in my life,” Clark said, “and that was the most fun, for sure.”

Clark bumped fists with teammate Kylie Feuerbach in the post-game press conference. The two won a championship as AAU teammates, and became roommates after Feuerbach transferred from Iowa State in the offseason.

“You’re my good-luck charm,” Clark said.

“You’re my good-luck charm,” Feuerbach repeated, and the two laughed.

The Hawkeyes went 14-4 in the Big Ten, and that’s significant. Iowa and Ohio State played their full schedules.

Bluder made sure to point out deputy director of athletics Barbara Burke, who was standing in the back of the press room. It was Burke who got Iowa’s full Big Ten schedule put together when it became a jumbled mess that could have altered the Hawkeyes’ season.

“Yes, she worked so hard with the Big Ten, and with schools, to get these games scheduled for us,” Bluder said.

Maryland and Michigan, which went 13-4, each lost games that couldn’t be rescheduled.

“Yeah, it’s pretty crummy, huh?” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.

Michigan had two wins over Maryland, one over Ohio State, one over Iowa, and fell a half-game short in the standings.

Barnes Arico recited that checklist. The one game they didn’t play was against Illinois, which won one Big Ten game and just six overall.

“Yeah, that’s pretty crushing,” she said. “The reality is we didn’t get to play the game. We’re not co-Big Ten champs, and that’s pretty crummy.”

There was no trophy for the Wolverines to take home.

When Bluder arrived to become Iowa’s coach in 2000, she and assistant coaches Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald talked about how they would like sellout home crowds.

Sunday’s game was the first sellout since 1988.

“It was unreal,” said Marshall, who said she got “chills” when she first came out on the court. “ I’ve been here three years, I’ve never seen so many fans in this place.”

The arena was empty an hour after the game when Bluder and her staff came out for more celebratory photos.

They had the trophy, finally, to themselves.

Go back to Clark’s list of goals. Getting this trophy was the first one.

The conference tournament is this weekend. There is room for more metal.

“Why not win two Big Ten titles?” Clark said.

Photo: Iowa seniors Tomi Taiwo (left) and Logan Cook kiss the Big Ten trophy after Sunday’s 104-80 win over Michigan. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

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