By John Bohnenkamp
IOWA CITY — You don’t sleepwalk through a game when you’re a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Take a nap, and a lower seed gives you a nightmare that haunts you throughout the offseason.
You rest in March, but don’t hit the snooze button.
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano joked on Thursday, a little more than 24 hours before they would walk onto the Carver-Hawkeye Arena court to begin their NCAA journey, that they would probably have to take some melatonin to help them sleep, just because they were so excited to get the chance to chase another championship.
A day later, after they routed Illinois State 98-58 in the first round in front of a sellout crowd, they told about how their sleep pattern the night before was different.
“I slept really well, honestly,” Clark said. “I don’t know if it was … it was kind of dark and rainy outside, so I don’t know. I slept good.”
Czinano, who was pushing the melatonin on Thursday, had a different experience.
“Yeah, I stared at the ceiling for a while,” she said. “I’m going to be honest. Eventually I fell asleep.”
It was a big day on Friday. The Hawkeyes were at home, a crowd of more than 14,000 was going to get to Carver-Hawkeye even though parking was limited and a cold rain was falling, and the pursuit of a national championship to go with Iowa’s Big Ten regular-season and tournament crowns was about to begin.
The Hawkeyes are a hot ticket these days — they sold out the regular-season finale against Michigan and took a share of the conference title that day. Sunday’s second-round game against 10th-seeded Creighton is also a sell-out.
“Having a sold-out crowd, there’s nothing like it,” Czinano said. ;And having experienced it once before, you just … you have a taste of it and you just want it every time.”
The Hawkeyes haven’t lost since a Valentine’s Day thrashing by Maryland. It’s eight consecutive wins now for a team playing like it was expected to when it opened the season in the top-10 in the national polls.
Now, certainly there were jitters in this game. Iowa was down 7-2 early, and missed five of its first six shots.
But no 15 seed has ever beaten a 2 seed, and while Illinois State came in with hopes of being the first, the Hawkeyes made sure that wasn’t going to happen. Iowa led 21-15 at the end of the first quarter, and 43-29 at halftime.
The best way to survive and advance against a much lower seed is take away hope, and the Hawkeyes did that.
Iowa had 25 assists on 33 field goals, crisp efficiency that coach Lisa Bluder craves.
“I love that style,” Bluder said. “Really sharing the ball really well.”
The Hawkeyes turned 13 Illinois State turnovers into 23 points. Iowa had 24 fast-break points, the Redbirds had just two.
“Honestly, they didn’t do anything fantastic,” said Illinois State’s JuJu Redmond. “We beat ourselves with the turnovers before half, and they just executed those and they made plays out of our turnovers. It was just our offense that got them the lead.”
But that’s how the Hawkeyes do it, and have been doing it since mid-February.
Clark, the nation’s leading scorer and consensus first-team All-American, had 27 points and 10 assists. Five of those were on six Czinano field goals — the center who leads the nation in field-goal percentage didn’t miss a shot.
Tomi Taiwo and Gabbie Marshall each had 13 points.
“We knew we had a tall task on hand, and they just … they had a few more weapons than we did,” Illinois State coach Kristen Gillespie said.
The Redbirds’ biggest disadvantage was going to be defending the post, so they sent double-teams at Czinano, who didn’t get her first points until 38 seconds into the second quarter.
“They were already doubling before we could even get the ball inside,” Czinano said. “I think as the game goes on it’s hard to (double-team) and leave my teammates open. They’re all deadly. Once that kind of settled down and we were hitting from the outside, it made it a lot easier to get it inside in that second quarter, and I think that just getting everybody involved, including me, was huge.”
The Hawkeyes were 16-of-23 from the field in the second half, including 8-of-10 in 3-pointers.
But Bluder knows that for Iowa to make a deep run in this tournament, Czinano will have to get more than six shots.
“She’s six for six, she’s perfect from the field, she’s perfect from the free-throw line, six for six,” Bluder said. “Why are we not giving her more shots? That’s what I want to know.
“You know, she can take over a game inside. She’s so talented. But yeah, we’ve got to give her the ball a little bit more, too, to let her go to work.”
Clark did her best to get Czinano going. Clark scored on a layup with 7:03 left in the second quarter, then didn’t score again until 2:06 was left in the third. She took just two shots in that span, but had six assists.
“I think she’s the best big in the country, hands down,” Clark said of Czinano. “I’m always looking for and I think she knows that. She always has her eyes up looking, and we really needed to get involved there. I kind of knew that and I was just looking for her there, especially there at the end of the second quarter.”
And every basket turned up the volume inside the arena.
The most silence came early in the third quarter, when Clark spun trying to get out of a double-team in the lane. The sound of her hitting the court, coupled with the limp she showed when she got up, turned cheers into a collective gasp.
Bluder, seeing Clark tried to walk off the pain, got guard Kylie Feuerbach off the bench to make a change. But Clark waved off the move, and Bluder agreed.
“Yeah, I think I was probably just a little out of control myself and then kind of took a tumble. I just hit my knee wrong on the floor,” Clark said. “Coach Bluder always wants me to stay on my feet more.”
Bluder nodded with emphasis.
“But I think I’ve done better as the year has gone on,” Clark said. “I’m all good. It’s part of basketball — it’s just how it goes.”
Now the Hawkeyes get Creighton, a team they saw in a closed scrimmage back in the fall, something that has become an annual event between the two programs.
“Yeah, my thought is why the heck do we schedule them every year on our home court and let them come in here and have that game?” Bluder quipped. “That’s kind of what my mind is going through right now.
“Neither one of us have too many secrets, really.”
It’s the next game. It’s going to be a sellout.
Sleep well, if you can.
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark drives to the basket during Friday’s NCAA tournament game. (Rob Howe/HawkeyeNation.com)