Colorado the next challenge for Caitlin Clark, Iowa

By Thomson Reuters Mar 28, 2024 | 10:09 AM

ALBANY, N.Y. — It’s only appropriate that the final journey of Caitlin Clark’s historic college basketball career will continue at a place called MVP Arena.

After all, Clark long has been the most valuable player of her Iowa team and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year for the third consecutive season. She is in the running for her second straight National Player of the Year award in a campaign in which she became the all-time leading scorer in Division I history — for both women and men.

And she’s trying to lead the No. 1-seeded Hawkeyes (31-4) to the Final Four for the second straight season, continuing that quest on Saturday in the Sweet 16 round of the Women’s NCAA Tournament Albany 2 Region.

Standing in Iowa’s way is Colorado (24-9), the fifth seed. But Clark knows she can’t do it alone — her philosophy in both life and basketball.

“I want to give a full effort. I want to rely on a team and other people around me,” said Clark, a senior who will enter the WNBA draft this spring and is projected as the No. 1 pick.

“I know not everything can be done by myself, and I have a lot of people that support me, whether it’s my teammates, whether it’s my coaches, whether it’s my family.”

Supporting Clark, the nation’s leading scorer at an average of 31.8 points per game, against Colorado will be double-figure scorers Hannah Stuelke (14.1) and Kate Martin (12.8).

Colorado, which defeated No. 4 seed Kansas State 63-50 in the second round to get to Albany, is plenty impressed by Clark but not intimidated.

This will be the second straight meeting for the Buffaloes and Hawkeyes in the Sweet 16. Iowa won 87-77 behind 31 points and eight assists from Clark last March.

“They returned almost everybody, we returned almost everybody, so in a lot of ways, two very, very similar teams,” Colorado coach JR Payne said Wednesday. “It was one of the best team games of the tournament last year. Everybody will go back and re-watch the film and figure out what works, what didn’t work.

“There’s been a lot of games since that one, and so both teams are also different in some ways. I’m just going to try to figure out how can we take advantage of any perceived weaknesses they have. I’m sure they’ll be doing the same for us.”

Frida Formann, who averages 12.5 points a game for Colorado, said her team is confident heading into the game against Iowa, which has won eight straight games.

“We can go toe-to-toe with them,” Formann said, reflecting on last season’s Sweet 16 meeting. “I remember we had some foul trouble that kind of took us out of our game.”

Aaronette Vonleh leads the Buffaloes with an average of 14.0 points per game. Also scoring in double figures is Jaylyn Sherrod (12.9 points, team-leading 4.9 assists). Quay Miller leads Colorado with 7.5 rebounds per game.

In Saturday’s first game, No. 2 seed UCLA (27-6) will take on No. 3 seed LSU (30-5), which defeated Iowa a year ago to win the national championship.

UCLA, one of five Pac-12 teams in the Sweet 16, is led by Lauren Betts (14.9 points, 9.0 rebounds per game), Charisma Osborne (14.1 points), Kiki Rice (13.2 points, 4.5 assists) and Londynn Jones (11.8 points).

Rice scored 24 points and Betts posted a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds as the Bruins overcame a 10-point deficit in the third quarter to defeat seventh-seeded Creighton 67-63 and advance to Albany.

“I’m just so proud of our team. I’m proud of their selflessness. I’m proud of their growth mindset. I’m proud of their ability to have a next-play speed mentality when things were not going our way,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “To respond and hold them to 21 points in the second half was tremendous.

“And we knew it was going to have to come with our defense, and then they had to adjust and then they started sending two and three people to Lauren, and we knew we had to attack off the bounce, and I thought Charisma and Kiki were just tremendous in some real critical moments.”

The Bruins will need to muster their toughest defense against the LSU tandem of Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow, who are the only teammates in the nation to put up more than 20 double-doubles apiece this season.

All has not been smooth sailing for LSU, which began the season with an early benching of Reese and will end the season awaiting a profile article about Hall of Fame coach Kim Mulkey, expected to be published imminently by The Washington Post. She’s already threatened to sue the newspaper.

Despite distractions, LSU has won 12 of the past 13 games, and Mulkey said after LSU erased a four-point halftime to beat 11th-seeded Middle Tennessee State 83-56 in the second round of the tournament that her team played dominant defense in the second half.

“I thought late in the shot clock they did exactly what they’ve been taught to do, and that’s you switch anything under 10 seconds on the shot-clock, you’ll hear us holler, ‘hot,'” Mulkey said. “That’s letting them know we switch at all positions on ball screens.

“I think also in the second half we rebounded better. Those guys were kicking our rear on the boards early, and honestly, that wasn’t in the scouting report. That was kind of a shock that we were getting out-rebounded or those things were happening in the first half.”

Five active LSU players average double figures in scoring, starting with Reese (18.7 points and a team-high 13.2 rebounds a game) and then Morrow (16.5 points, 10.0 rebounds), Mikaylah Williams (14.5 points), Flau’jae Johnson (14.4) and Hailey Van Lith (11.8).

The winner of each game Saturday will advance to the regional final on Monday night, with that winner heading to the Final Four in Cleveland.

–Jami Farkas, Field Level Media