By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
IOWA CITY — They have logged so many minutes throughout their career, so it was only fitting that Iowa’s five starters never left the court in the second half until there was nothing left on the clock.
The Hawkeyes’ 74-66 win over Georgia in the second round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was about endurance. And with the Lady Bulldogs’ zone defense cluttering the court and making it hard for Iowa to move the basketball, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder wanted her most experienced players out there.
All-American guard Caitlin Clark, who led the Hawkeyes with 22 points and 12 assists, wasn’t going anywhere. She played all 20 minutes, and either scored or had an assist on 31 of Iowa’s 33 second-half points.
Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock played all 20 minutes. Gabbie Marshall played all but the last four seconds after being shoved to the court on an intentional foul. Monika Czinano played 18:41.
Those five have been together for so long, so this was going to be their win to complete, because Iowa’s bench, which has been so deep all season, seemed a little shorter.
Forward Hannah Stuelke, who was the Big Ten’s Sixth Player of the Year, was in uniform but was unavailable because of an ankle injury suffered in Saturday’s practice.
Guard Molly Davis played just 1:45 after hitting the court hard and suffering a leg injury in the first half.
“You know, it’s just unfortunate that Hannah went down,” Bluder said. “And obviously, when Molly went down right away, it’s one of those things. But honestly, our players never hung their head, they never got upset about any of that stuff. And again, I really credit their maturity.”
Maturity can get you through March when it’s not your best game, and Sunday wasn’t Iowa’s best game. The Hawkeyes had 17 turnovers, shot just 44.8 percent from the field, including 30.8 percent in the fourth quarter, and won.
And now they’re heading to Seattle for a regional semifinal for sure, a regional final that they’re hoping for, and the spot in the Final Four that they’re craving.
“It’s awesome,” said Clark, who went scoreless for 13 minutes in the first half. “Any time you are one of 16 teams that get to keep playing basketball, it’s pretty special. It wasn’t a huge party or celebration in the locker room. This wasn’t our goal. It’s one of the steps to reaching our goal. but it’s not the be-all, end-all to us. This is the first weekend and it’s done with. And now we have the second weekend. And we hope there’s a third weekend too.”
The first thing was getting through this weekend, something the Hawkeyes, a second seed last year and a second seed this year, didn’t do with a second-round loss to No. 10 seed Creighton.
The Bluejays were a bad matchup for the Hawkeyes then, and then here comes Georgia, another 10 seed with something to prove.
“Yeah. I think it shows how tough we are,” Clark said. “I think the mental toughness is going to carry us a long way. It wasn’t always pretty. Seventeen turnovers isn’t as (low) as we would like. We want to keep that number a bit lower.
“This is a tough game to win. You are in the round of 32. Georgia has absolutely nothing to lose. We were in front of a sold-out crowd. And I thought we came down and we were really tough at the end of the game.”
Oh, the Lady Bulldogs still gave the Hawkeyes fits though. Their zone is never passive, and they certainly were trying to get into the heads of their opponents, who sometimes haven’t been able to handle the physicality that comes with quieter whistles in the tournament.
Georgia’s Alisha Lewis made herself the irritant in residence against Clark, constantly swatting at the ball and generally trying to tick off the All-American. Lewis finally got called for a foul in the first half, and then Clark responded with a forearm to the chest, sending a message that she wasn’t going to step back.
It was that kind of feistiness that dictated the tone of the game.
Every Iowa run had a Georgia answer, but just when the ghost of Creighton past started to descend into the arena in the closing minutes, the Hawkeyes made the final push.
It was 68-66 when Clark missed a point-blank shot inside the lane with 1:27 to play. But she came back and stole the ball from Georgia’s Diamond Battles on the other end, and this time, she roared to the basket and banked in a shot for a four-point lead.
“We got a stop and we come down, I think there was 1:10, maybe, left on the clock,” Clark said, reciting every detail as if the play just happened. “I just dribbled it out. And we went four flat. So basically I was going to take the girl to the hole. And luckily I beat her and got a shot off and made it and it became a two-possession game.”
The Clark steal was the first of three turnovers forced by the Hawkeyes in the closing 67 seconds.
Georgia got in two parting shots, intentional fouls from Jordan Isaacs and Javyn Nicholson in the final seconds. Clark was more than happy with the gifts, sinking four free throws for the final margin.
Georgia coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson had been having fun in the press conferences all weekend, yet there was an edge to her words, and it got sharper in the post-game of this one.
Battles, who led Georgia with 21 points, was “the best player on the floor tonight,” Abrahamson-Henderson said.
And when asked about the runs the Lady Bulldogs had made as answers to the Hawkeyes, she said, “We made a lot of runs. I know everything is going to be about Iowa right now. But my team is really good. They are really good. We came in here, we fought like crazy, we were the underdogs, but there was no underdog here today.
“We had two really, really good teams on the floor today. And one of them was Georgia. For sure.”
Bluder, asked about Abrahamson-Henderson’s proclamation of Battles, just went to the box score.
“You have a hard time telling me that Caitlin Clark wasn’t the best player when she has 12 assists and 22 points and three steals,” Bluder said. “The numbers are right there.”
Numbers are fine, but the sellout crowd of 14,382 wanted exclamation points all day. Instead it was one comma after another, connected statements from the Hawkeyes that built a victory. Explosions are nice, but steadiness is quite effective.
“Sometimes it’s about matchups,” Bluder said. “Today, a Georgia team was a tough matchup for us. And I thought we did a great job with that.”
It was all about maturity, which is how you get through March.
Photo: Iowa’s Monika Czinano hugs teammate Caitlin Clark (22) after Sunday’s NCAA Tournament win over Georgia. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)