Caitlin Clark closes home career as Iowa beats West Virginia

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Caitlin Clark was the last to hit the field at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday. But to do that, she and the Iowa Hawkeyes had to survive a nervy defensive battle and win a game where they usually struggle.

The top-scoring team in Division I women's basketball this season (92.8 PPG coming into Monday's second-round game) had to hold off a West Virginia team that made Iowa work for every point. The Hawkeyes scored just one basket in the fourth quarter. But they still move on to the Sweet 16, saying goodbye to the building that Clark and his fellow seniors filled all season.

No. 1 seed Iowa defeated No. 8 seed West Virginia 64-54 in the Albany 2 Region. Clark had 32 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists in his final home game, breaking another record in his historic season. She now has 1,113 points, tied for the most points in a Division I season by former Washington Huskies star Kelsey Plum.

She had already broken Blum's NCAA women's career scoring record, Lynette Woodard's major college women's record and Pete Maravich's DI overall record. But all the fanfare over Clarke's personal accolades won't mean so much if things go badly on Monday.

And it looked like it could happen for most of the game. Before Monday, the Hawkeyes were 3-8 in Clark's career in games with under 70 points. A 64-62 second-round loss to Creighton in 2022, Clark's second season. Iowa was then the no. 2 seed and Creighton was the No. 10 seed.

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Clark said regret was the biggest motivator of his career.

“I never thought my career would grow [did] If we hadn't lost to Creighton,” Clark said. “I didn't think we would have gone to the Final Four last year … I didn't think we would have won this game tonight. It's probably the lowest of my career, and you have to sit with it for the rest of the year until you get a chance to play Georgia at home.”

Last season's NCAA second round game against the Bulldogs was also very close; Iowa won 74-66 and didn't pull away until the final minute. For the third year in a row Monday, a full house at Carver-Hawkeye had hearts racing for the second round game.

“It's one of the toughest rounds in the NCAA tournament,” Clark said. Iowa's Big Ten rival, Ohio State, lost to Duke on Sunday. “Everybody's really good. You're expected to win. You're on your home court. You have all the pressure in the world. They have absolutely nothing to lose to come here and upset us.”

Mark Kellogg, in his first season at West Virginia, looked at the bracket of his team and Mountaineer fans on Selection Sunday and said light-heartedly, “Let's win one and then send Caitlin Clark packing.”

He intended to shoot his soldiers, but it was leaked publicly. Kellogg said at a press conference Friday before the first round that he fully respects Clark and Iowa and didn't mean anything negative. But the truth is, his Mountaineers nearly knocked off the Hawkeyes.

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“I'm very proud of our team, resilience — that's been our watchword all year,” said Kellogg, who took over for Don Blitzwhite, who stayed at West Virginia for one season before moving to Minnesota.

“I thought that defensive effort tonight was huge and special. And for that team to do some things statistically — as good as they are offensively — it's a credit to our players. Of course, we'd love to. I've made some more shots and made some more plays.”

The Mountaineers held the Hawkeyes to just 6 points in the second quarter and 26 in the first half, Iowa's season-low by a quarter and a half. Iowa had just 7 assists for the game, the program's lowest total in a win since 2016. Iowa made just one field goal in the fourth quarter, but sank 14 free throws.

The large disparity in free throws stood out in the box score — Iowa 25-of-30, and West Virginia 3-of-5 from the line — but reflected the two teams' styles of play. Iowa was a very aggressive driving group, and the Mountaineers didn't attack the heart of the Hawkeyes zone much, settling more for outside shots.

“I think this is one of the best defensive teams we've seen all year,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I'm very proud that our team had six turnovers against that pressure defense in the second half. It keeps you calm, especially when they built it up. We found a way to win in a different way and we won. Our defense tonight.”

In fact, when the score was tied at 52-52 with just over 2 minutes remaining, the Hawkeyes didn't falter. Junior guard Sydney Affolder had a 3-point play that gave Iowa enough breathing space to close out the game.

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Colorado, ranked No. 5 behind Iowa, is the same team the Hawkeyes faced last season in the Sweet 16. Iowa won the game 87-77 in the final four.

Some of her fellow seniors shed tears of joy after Monday's game, but Clark was all smiles. During one of the greatest careers in college hoops history, she enjoyed some time in the atmosphere of the arena she has come to love the past four seasons.

“I wish I could have stayed on the court a little longer and soaked it all in a little longer,” Clark said in Iowa's locker room. “But I don't think there's a better way than a gritty, resilient win. Honestly, it was almost the opposite of Iowa basketball, but I think that's what makes it so sweet. Our defense was really good, and people don't always give our defense a lot of credit.

“That's the reason we won tonight. We didn't make many shots, but at this point it's important to survive and advance, and that's what we did.”

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