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IOWA CITY — This wasn’t what ESPN2 wanted, at least not the first half.
The network had itself an Iowa State-Iowa women’s basketball game in prime time Wednesday, it had two preseason top-10 teams and the nation’s most-popular and most-prolific college player in Caitlin Clark.
And it had what is now commonly called a rock fight, with the Cyclones ahead 28-23 at halftime.
“Most people thought that would be the score of the first quarter,” Iowa State Coach Bill Fennelly said.
His team shot 33.3 percent from the field in the half, while Iowa was at 27.8 percent. The Marvelous Ms. Clark was 2-of-14. Fellow preseason All-American Ashley Joens of Iowa State was 2-of-8.
Was Iowa on its way to a fourth loss by Dec. 7? Nah. Clark started doing Clark things.
With 4:43 left in the third quarter, she made a shot from deep, somewhere between the 3-point line and the Iowa City airport. It was one of those rainbows splitting the nets, a thing of beauty we’ve come to expect and yet still find dumbfounding.
Iowa had gone ahead, 36-34. Clark made another bomb, Kate Martin had a sweet reverse lay-in and a 3-pointer, and backup center Addison O’Grady scored three buckets including one on a put-back to beat the third-quarter buzzer.
The Hawkeyes led 50-36 on the way to a 70-57 win. Their third-quarter advantage was 27-8. They defended in that period, as well as the other three. Iowa State shot just 36.1 percent.
“Defense” and “Hawkeye women’s basketball” have occasionally been mutually exclusive terms. They certainly were here last Thursday when Iowa lost 94-81 to North Carolina State and the Wolfpack scored 55 second-half points.
“We weren’t happy with the way we played defensively,” Clark said, “and I think the most-frustrating part about it is we knew we were so capable of playing great defense. … We knew we could have won the game. All we had to was get stops on the defensive end. Our offense was completely fine.
“Maybe that was the kick in the butt we needed going forward.”
Clark had 19 points, low for her. She liked her stat line, though, because it contained eight rebounds, eight assists, and a career-high five steals.
“I think when we took it a little more to heart this game we really bought into defensively, you know, it’s fun getting stops. It’s fun getting 5-second calls, it’s fun forcing them into turnovers.”
“We’ve got that on a recording,” said Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder, sitting next to Clark when she said that. “It’s fun to play defense.”
So ESPN2 didn’t get a 92-90 showstopper with Clark scoring 45, and so forth. But at least fury and sound came through the TV.
The demographic at Iowa women’s games isn’t what you would call millennials, let alone Generation Z. Yet, the crowd of 13,802 — for a 6 p.m. weeknight game — brought the noise.
A few members of the Iowa men’s basketball team were in attendance and probably hoped the same people would return for their Thursday game here against Iowa State.
“Amazing,” Bluder called the fans.
“Incredible,” Clark said. “They made it difficult for Iowa State on offense. I don’t think Iowa State could hear anything. I don’t think they could hear the plays they were trying to call, and that just gives us so much energy on the defensive end.
“I’ve always played the game of basketball that way, a lot of energy, a lot of passion. I think that’s what brings people to the arena, is because I play with that emotion. And that’s how women’s basketball should be played, and that’s what people should enjoy about it as well.”
Iowa State has to become a better-shooting team than it’s been in its two losses, to North Carolina and Iowa. The Hawkeyes have to defend more like they did here as opposed to how they did against Connecticut and N.C. State.
These are two good teams. Are they NCAA Elite Eight-quality, which is where they were slotted in Associated Press’ preseason rankings? Maybe.
Were we looking at a battle between the Big 12 and Big Ten champions-to-be? Maybe.
What we do know is the women’s game has seldom been as strong in this state as it is now, and that’s saying something.
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