Southeast Louisiana entered the NCAA Women’s Tournament with experience against the best. The Lady Lions opened their season on a West Coast road trip that included Utah, a 2-seed in Greenville 2, and returned to their home state to play LSU, a 3-seed in the same region.
“Each of them had a very important piece in their puzzle,” said Lions coach Ayla Guzzardo. “I’ll be honest, though. We haven’t seen anything like Caitlin Clark.”
The No. 15 Lions trailed No. 2 Iowa quickly in the first round of Friday’s Seattle 4 regional, bowing out of the tournament 95-43, by a margin of defeat greater than Utah’s (37, its worst above) and LSU (8). Clark scored 12 of the Hawkeyes’ first 15 points and flirted with a triple-double, which would be her fifth this season and 11th overall.
The Iowa starters were benched early in the fourth to roars from another sell-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd. Tickets sold out in 52 minutes and resold for double the next most expensive first round site in Connecticut, per ESPN. Iowa averaged 10,738 fans per game at the start of the tournament, which ranks second in the nation and would set the conference mark held by Wisconsin (10,455 at 97-98).
Clark led all scorers with 26 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in 29 minutes. It was her second game of the tournament with at least 20 points and 10 assists, making her the only player with multiples.
“What she can do with the ball from the goal, advantage for the pass”, said Guzzardo. “I think that’s where we almost became [fans] on the sideline, ‘Oh, that was a great pass.’ … What she can do is just amazing.
Iowa (27-6) relies heavily on Clark, a National Player of the Year candidate from nearby West Des Moines, but will only go as far as her teammates play. Two of their three highest scoring games this season have been losses, including 45 points against NC State in December.
Much of this complementary production falls to Monika Czinano, his fifth-year colleague in the painting that completes the “Law Office”, as the duo is called. For the Hawkeyes to progress from the second round, where they were beaten last season, to the Final Four, which they did only once in 1993, they need the X factor of their hometown, which showed up again on Friday.
Six-foot-tall freshman Hannah Stuelke, who grew up less than 30 miles from the Iowa arena, scored 13 points in 14 minutes on a 5-of-5 day, her fourth perfect outing of the season and third going to 5 out of 5.5.
“When we have her playing like that and she can come off the bench, that gives us another weapon that people need to plan for,” Clark said. “I think Hannah played tremendously tonight.”
His score was second only to Clark and Czinano (22 points). They were the only three of the 14 Hawkeyes to see the ground that scored in double figures. The team shot 60% from the ground, including 40% from the 3-point range, and assisted on 27 of 36 shots.
Addison O’Grady was also perfect (3 of 3) in six minutes coming off the bench and highlighted by Clark after the match. Rookie guard Taylor McCabe had one of the team’s eight 3-pointers and earned a monstrous reaction from the crowd.
Stuelke, the first player from Iowa to win the Big Ten sixth player of the year since Melissa Dixon in 2013, is averaging 7 points and 4.2 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game. His 61.1% field goal clip is second only to Czinano in Iowa players averaging more than two shots per game and ranks 28th in Division I. And his player efficiency rating (PER) of 25.8 it is second only to Clark (41) and Czinano (30.5).
“I think she’s a crowd favorite because she’s fun to watch,” said Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder. “The way she leaves the ground, the way she runs on the ground, it’s beautiful.”
In the biggest games of the team, she has been claw. Her other two 5-of-5 perfect games were a close loss to Indiana, a top seed in the tournament, and the February 2 win over Maryland, also a 2 seed. a close on-court connection with Clark crucial to Iowa’s success next season when this longtime starting lineup ends after graduation. The only thing she needs to improve is her free throws, which are at 45.8%.
Stuelke’s five rebounds against Southeast Louisiana tied O’Grady for most off the bench, trailing Czinano and McKenna Warnock with eight apiece, and will be critical going into their second-round game against No. 10 Georgia. The Bulldogs defeated an injury-plagued Florida State team earlier in the day to take on Iowa at 2 pm ET Sunday on ABC.
Georgia (22-11) holds opponents to 58.3 points per game, the top 50 in the nation, and is active on the charts with a 37.3% offensive rebound rate. Iowa ranks fifth in defensive rebounds (76%) as opponents rush to recover so they don’t get burned in transition by Clark’s full-court assists.
Stuelke has already found himself getting some of those, paving the way for what they hope will be Iowa’s Final Four puzzle.