Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Clark, Iowa Too Tough as Nebraska Falls in Big Ten Tournament Semifinals

March 05, 2022

Caitlin Clark is a polarizing figure in women’s college basketball. Many get irked by the theatrics that seem to come attached with the incredible basketball talent.

For the third time this season, Nebraska was challenged with stopping Clark and the Hawkeyes. If the Huskers wanted to achieve their goal of winning a conference championship, they had to go through Clark.

For two quarters Saturday night in Indianapolis, Nebraska hung with the No. 2 offense in the country, just like it did in the first two games. The Huskers trailed just 38-35 at the half, and after an Alexis Markowski layup cut the deficit to 38-37 early in the third, the Big Red was knocking on the door. But Clark and Iowa’s best post player, Monica Czinano, had other ideas.

Clark hit a jumper, then Czinano sank back-to-back layups without a Husker answer. Those buckets led to a 28-point third quarter for Iowa, which started rolling at a pace the Huskers, who were playing three games in three days, couldn’t keep up with. Clark’s 41 points and Czinano’s 22 led the Hawkeyes to an 83-66 win in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, ending Nebraska’s hopes at a championship and instead forcing them to shift focus to an NCAA tournament bid.

“We’re pretty disappointed in this ball game and the outcome from this game,” Nebraska head coach Amy Williams said in the postgame press conference. “Obviously we came here to win a conference championship, so anything short of that we were going to be heartbroken and disappointed. At the same token, I’m really, really proud of this group and I told them in the locker room that if we can learn some lessons from what we learned here today, and really find ways to improve between this tournament and the NCAA tournament, we feel like we can make a run there as well.”

The third quarter was the difference. Iowa outscored Nebraska 28-18, stretching a 38-35 edge to 66-53 at the start of the fourth. Clark and Czinano combined to score 22 of those 28 points—Clark with 12 and Czinano with 10. Nebraska shot 8-of-15 in the third and just 1-of-6 from 3-point range.

The 3-point shot wasn’t there for the Huskers on Saturday, and it needed to be to knock off a team like Iowa. Nebraska went just 3-of-26 from behind the arc. The three makes is the fewest in a game this season.

“We’re not going to use ‘ran out of gas’ as an excuse. Everybody this time of year is fatigued and tired,” Williams said. “I think the big thing is they were really aggressive in penetration in the third quarter. I thought they just put a mindset to get their shoulder down and go to the rim, and it wasn’t just Caitlin Clark, but I thought at times, even McKenna Warnock and for sure Kate Martin, just really aggressive driving down that right lane line, and we had a hard time keeping the ball in front of us there in the third quarter.”

Nebraska needed a big fourth quarter, but it never came. Instead, Clark rattled off 10 more points in the final 10 minutes and drilled a step-back 3 on Mi’Cole Cayton, who came off the bench and was charged with slowing down the All-American guard.

“We lost our focus just a little bit, and our ability to execute there,” Williams said. “Offensively, we kind of started to try to just go make plays one-on-one instead of staying within the flow of executing as a team, and I think that’s something we can really learn from and practice and work on over the next week, and hopefully just do a much better job as we try to make a run in the NCAA tournament.”

After barely playing in Friday’s quarterfinal win over Michigan because of foul trouble, Issie Bourne bounced back and led the Huskers on Saturday with 16 points. Sam Haiby and Jaz Shelley both scored 15 points. Haiby, after scoring nine of her 16 points in the fourth quarter the night before against Michigan, wasn’t able to create the same late-game magic. Shelley, who dished out five assists, went 3-of-9 from 3-point range—the rest of the team went 0-of-17. Markowski, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, added seven points while taking nine shots and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds with a team-best three steals.

Next up for the Huskers is a likely NCAA tournament trip. In ESPN’s latest bracketology, Nebraska is projected as a No. 6 seed. The Huskers haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2018. That season, they fell to Arizona State in Austin, Texas.

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