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Iowa ready for grueling march to glory


Iowa came agonizingly close to glory in 2023.

Lisa Bluder’s team reached its first ever National Championship final last spring, becoming the first Big Ten team to reach the title game since Rutgers in 2007, and knocked off the defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks to get there.

But once they got to the final, the Hawkeyes were thoroughly outclassed by Angel Reese and LSU in a 102-85 rout. How a team reacts to that kind of disappointment is always fascinating. For some, it’s their only bite at the cherry and it’s as close as they’ll ever come to triumph. For others, it’s the ultimate motivation to get right back up the mountain.

Obviously, with the transient natures of NCAA rosters, things are a little bit different, and teams can’t regroup like they can in the pro game where there isn’t the same kind of year-to-year squad turnover. But of the Hawkeyes’ 14-player roster from last season, 11 women returned for the current campaign. Iowa is back in March Madness as the top seed in the very challenging Regional 2 in Albany. Among their potential opponents within their side of the bracket are defending champions LSU, Pac-12 giants UCLA and Kansas State, a team that has already beaten the Hawkeyes this season.

The straw that stirs the drink for Iowa is, of course, Caitlin Clark. Perhaps the most famous collegiate athlete in the United States, it’s very easy to run out of superlatives when talking about the kind of player the 22-year-old Des Moines native has turned into during her time in Iowa City.

Clark became NCAA basketball’s all-time leading scorer, men’s or women’s, this season and appears poised to repeat as the winner of the host of player of the year awards she claimed in 2023.  With the spotlight firmly focused on Clark for the duration of the season, the guard has embraced everything that comes with it and excelled. Having already announced that she will be turning pro at the end of the season, Clark will most assuredly hear her name called first at next month’s WNBA Draft and join the Indiana Fever this summer.

Facing off against Clark is obviously a terrifying proposition for the teams set to meet the Hawkeyes, starting with No. 16 Holy Cross on Saturday, but she’s not the only player on this deep Iowa team that can hurt you, and it might be a case of picking your poison.

Sophomore Hannah Stuelke dropped 47 on Penn State in February and the Cedar Rapids, IA native thrived with increased playing time and responsibility this season, averaging 14.6 points a night. Fifth-year senior guard Kate Martin also set career highs this season and became the first woman in program history to amass 900-plus points, 500-plus boards, 400-plus assists, 120-plus steals, and 60-plus blocks in a career. Gabbie Marshall, another fifth-year senior guard, is .500 from three over her past five games, going 16-for-32.

If the Hawkeyes were to reach the final yet again, they will have earned it. ESPN’s Power Index ratings give Iowa the second-lowest odds of reaching the Final Four among the four No. 1 seeds at 32.9 per cent. Should they get past the Crusaders, up next would be a date with Ivy League champions Princeton or West Virginia.

Progressing from there (and if other results were to go chalk) could see a third game this season against K-State in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats handed the Hawkeyes their first loss of the season back on Nov. 16 before Iowa avenged the loss on Nov. 28. Then an Elite Eight game would likely either be a 2023 National Championship matchup with the Tigers or facing off with Lauren Betts, Charisma Osborne and UCLA.

The path ahead for the Hawkeyes is a grueling one, but it’s one they feel well equipped to handle. Last season’s ultimate failure has only fueled their desire for redemption and Iowa knows it’s their last chance to win it all with this group with Clark and others departing at season’s end.

It’s now or never for these Hawkeyes and they wouldn’t have it any other way.