By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Caitlin Clark wanted to be challenged.
There are games to endure, and then there are games to challenge you, in November and December.
Iowa’s first two games of the season were against Southern and Evansville, and the No. 4-ranked Hawkeyes won both by a combined margin of 96 points.
It wasn’t that Clark, Iowa’s All-American guard, didn’t enjoy them. Scoring 115 points on Evansville gets you into the record book — it was the most points scored in Iowa’s program history — but it doesn’t prepare you for a run through the Big Ten, it doesn’t prepare you for the NCAA tournament.
That’s why Clark said on Thursday night, after the win over Evansville, that she wanted to be challenged, that she wanted the Hawkeyes challenged.
That, she said, would be fun.
Clark got her wish on Sunday. The 92-86 overtime win over Drake at the Knapp Center in Des Moines was the grind she wanted.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “it was fun.”
It was 2 hours and 15 minutes of an intense in-state rivalry, a sellout crowd of 6,424 surrounding the action.
It was March in November, and it was perfect for where the Hawkeyes want to go.
“What an environment,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “This was like an NCAA tournament environment.
“Coming here, a win on the road, I’m extremely happy with that.”
The Hawkeyes won when they weren’t at their best, and that’s a good thing.
Clark was asked if this was a game when it was good to survive against an in-state opponent.
“I don’t it’s so much ‘survive’ them,” Clark said. “You know you’re going to get their best shot, you know it’s going to be close.”
The Bulldogs gave the Hawkeyes everything for 40 minutes, then Iowa dominated the five minutes of the extra period. Drake is certainly going to be a contender in the Missouri Valley Conference — the type of team, Clark said, that you might get on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
“I think they’re an NCAA tournament team,” she said. “I truly believe that. People always try to knock that we can’t guard small-ball teams. We can. This is a great team for us to play.”
The Hawkeyes didn’t get out of the first weekend last season, eliminated by Creighton in the second round on a sold-out Sunday at home.
If they want to weather a day like that next March, it’s best to learn how to do that in November.
There is a lot of time for the Hawkeyes to be the best version of themselves to handle the postseason. They have the dominance of Clark, who finished with 28 points on a 9-of-28 shooting day, and center Monika Czinano, who had 36 points.
But they need help around them, and they didn’t have that for a while on Sunday.
Clark and Czinano scored 27 consecutive first-half points, and combined for 34 of Iowa’s 41 points in the half.
The Hawkeyes finally got some help from others in the second half and in overtime, which is why they won. McKenna Warnock had eight of her 11 points in the second half. Gabbie Marshall, scoreless in the first half, hit two critical 3-pointers in the second half and came up with a key steal early in the overtime that helped an early 4-point spurt that put the Hawkeyes in control.
The Hawkeyes won on a day when they shot 41.8 percent from the field and made just 17-of-30 free throws.
“I think we found ways to win,” Clark said. “Maybe we didn’t play our best — we can say that. But that’s what we’ve been talking about this whole year — find ways to win when our offense isn’t going the way you want it to. I think we did that.”
It only gets tougher for the Hawkeyes. They’re on the road at Kansas State on Thursday, then get a Belmont team at home on Sunday that is a lot like Drake. Then there’s Oregon State and Duke or UConn on a neutral court over Thanksgiving weekend, and then home games against top-10 teams in North Carolina State and Iowa State sandwiched around a road Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.
Two routs to start the season got the Hawkeyes some work. A gritty road win against a rival can build the calluses for what’s coming.
“Getting a win here, going to overtime, having that mental resolve, and quite honestly getting our conditioning going, it’s going to be really good for us down the stretch,” Czinano said.
“There are things we can take away that could have made this a more comfortable win,” Clark said. “But I think it shows the veterans we have on our team. I think we stayed super-steady when things didn’t go our way. And I think that showed a lot of growth for us.”
Photo: Iowa’s Monika Czinano reacts after scoring in Sunday’s 92-86 overtime win over Drake. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)