Clark, Iowa advance, expect ‘more energy’ vs. LSU

ALBANY, N.Y. — The collision course for last season’s national championship game opponents was set up by the NCAA women’s basketball committee on Selection Sunday nearly two weeks ago. Then Iowa and LSU had to work to get there. Now, it’s on.

The No. 1 seed Hawkeyes dominated their Sweet 16 game versus 5-seed Colorado 89-68 on Saturday here at MVP Arena. That followed a much closer and more heated matchup in which No. 3 seed and defending champion LSU took over in the final four minutes to beat 2-seed UCLA 78-69.

Next, it’s a rematch of the game that drew the biggest television audience in women’s tournament history last season in Dallas. The Tigers won the ABC-televised NCAA final 102-85, after Iowa had upset previously undefeated South Carolina in the national semifinals.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes had barely stepped off the court after beating the Buffaloes before the questions came about LSU.

“Anytime you have a chance to go up against somebody you lost to, it brings a little more energy,” said guard Caitlin Clark, who led Iowa with 29 points and 15 assists. “I think overall, it’s just going to be a really great game for women’s basketball.”

LSU enters the regional final surrounded by various dramas, such as newspaper articles that have angered coach Kim Mulkey and some unpleasantries that might have been exchanged between LSU players and UCLA’s bench and fans on Saturday. Bruins coach Cori Close insisted no one on her staff said anything “a little crazy” toward LSU forward Angel Reese, as Reese claimed in the postgame news conference.

There also was drama at the end of last year’s national championship game, as Reese pointed to her ring finger while circling Clark near the conclusion of LSU’s victory. That was followed by debate about whether Reese got undue criticism for her on-court actions as compared to other players, including Clark. A couple of days later, Clark said Reese didn’t deserve criticism and that it was all just about players being competitive.

Even so, the cameras will be trained on Clark and Reese, especially, on Monday night as they face off in another high-stakes contest.

In comparison, Saturday’s game was relative stress-free for the Hawkeyes, who controlled it from the tip. It was very different from Monday’s 64-54 second-round victory over West Virginia. That one, the last for Clark and her fellow seniors on their home court, wasn’t decided until the final minutes.

Still, Clark said the key on Saturday was that Iowa never let up on the gas pedal. Part of that was the memory of double-digit leads that got away from the Hawkeyes in the second half of losses at Ohio State and Nebraska this season.

“Even when we were up 19, I’m like, ‘Go, go, go! We don’t stop!'” Clark said. “I think that always has to be our mentality, but that’s also just the way we play. We play fast; we don’t want to stop. That’s how we dominate games.

“There have been moments this season where we kind of let up and let teams back in. But that’s not what we did tonight.”

Five Iowa players scored in double figures, as the Hawkeyes shot 53.8% from the field. Clark and her teammates called it one of the most complete games they have played in a while.

“I speak for everybody on our team: We did not come into this game knowing LSU had won and were like, ‘Oh, we want to win to play LSU,'” Clark said. “We came into this game … focused on beating Colorado, because Colorado is a really good basketball team.”

But now, nearly a year to the day after last facing LSU — the 2023 national championship game was on April 2 — the Hawkeyes will do it again.

Clark said she doesn’t remember a lot about the details of that game, in part because she hasn’t wanted to dwell on it too much.

“Ever since this season started, my focus is like 1-0 every single time we take the court,” Clark said. “I’m not caught up in the past, not caught up in the future. I wouldn’t be able to be the player I am if I was too worried about what has happened or what is going to happen.

“You can learn from everything, but to be honest, the run we went on last year, it goes so fast, and it kind of is a blur at this point. The biggest thing to take away from that is everything comes down to one possession. I think that’s what our group learned from that journey is, we played in a lot of really tight close games, and being able to execute down the stretch is really important.”

And even if that wasn’t the case on Saturday, the Hawkeyes are prepared for it Monday.

This post was originally published on ESPN

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