By John Bohnenkamp
Caitlin Clark’s cold glare reached the back of the press conference room, and beyond.
Iowa’s 64-62 loss to 10th seed Creighton in Sunday’s NCAA tournament second-round game wasn’t even a half-hour old and Clark, the Hawkeyes’ All-American guard, was already focused on the future.
Iowa was the 2 seed in the Greensboro Region, with a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and the conference tournament championship already banked. This tournament, with the first two games at a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena, was supposed to be a step toward a long March journey.
Instead, it’s a step toward 2023.
“I think there’s a lot of exciting basketball ahead for this group, but obviously the feeling of letting (the fans) down, letting the coaches down, our teammates down, it stinks right now,” Clark said. “But I think overall it’s just more fuel for us going into next year.”
The disjointed season for the Hawkeyes — the COVID-19 issues, the injuries — seemed to all come together at the most important time. Iowa won four consecutive games to end the regular season and share the Big Ten title with Ohio State, won three games to win the Big Ten tournament, then opened the NCAA tournament with a 98-58 victory over Illinois State on Friday.
And then it crashed to a halt against Creighton, a team that the Hawkeyes felt was a bad matchup before the game even started.
The Bluejays’ five-guard offense loved to shoot 3-pointers, and when early shots went down, the Hawkeyes were left scrambling for answers. And even after Iowa got a four-point lead late, Creighton would not be put away.
The key shots came from Lauren Jensen, a former Hawkeye who transferred in the offseason, then came back and eliminated her former teammates.
“Overall they executed down the stretch and we didn’t, and there’s a lot of little things that you can go back and pick out from a one-possession game,” Clark said. “And I think it’s overall just going to be a lot of fuel to the fire next year. I think that’s really all you can use it as.”
Iowa opened the season as a top-10 team, and there is no doubt those expectations will be there next season. All five starters return:
• Clark, the nation’s leading scorer at 27.4 points per game.
• Center Monika Czinano, who led the nation in field-goal percentage.
• Guard Kate Martin, a player described as the “glue” of the lineup after a season in which she had 106 assists and 147 rebounds.
• Forward McKenna Warnock, who averaged 11.4 points per game and led the team in 3-point percentage at .423.
• Guard Gabbie Marshall, third on the team in 3-pointers and the team leader in steals with 46.
The Hawkeyes will have a deep bench, depth that was tested this season with preseason injuries and then midseason injuries that left them with only eight available players at one point.
Iowa will bring back 94.2 percent of its scoring and 93.4 percent of its rebounding from a team that went 24-8. But next year will be the last season for that starting lineup combination, and that closing window along with the high expectations beings a different pressure.
The players don’t seem to mind.
“I think we’re a fun team to watch,” Czinano said. “I think people are picking up on that and I think it’s drawing more eyes to the sport. Obviously Caitlin is a phenomenal player and that brings it, too. But people come a lot of times for Caitlin’s name and they stay because we’re so fun to watch as a collective unit.
“I’m just so proud of what we’re doing here, and the story is not over for us.”
The 2021-22 story had the ending that no one expected.
“I’m just really proud of this team,” coach Lisa Bluder said. “And the exciting thing is we return everybody from our starting lineup, and that’s exciting. We have three great recruits coming in.
“But I couldn’t be more proud of this group. I love them.”
Then her voice broke.
“I can’t believe I don’t get to go to practice tomorrow,” Bluder said. “That’s the hardest thing for me right now is that I don’t get to go to practice tomorrow.”
Photo: Iowa’s season ended with a second-round loss to Creighton, but that just fuels the motivation for next season. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)