Leistikow: Caitlin Clark, Iowa women’s basketball answer lingering questions in Illinois win. Caitlin Clark, can you stop laughing 😂😂

IOWA CITY − The stretch run of this highly anticipated Iowa women’s basketball season is here. And coming into Sunday’s penultimate regular-season home game, the Hawkeyes had some fresh and burning questions to address.

Iowa women's basketball Caitlin Clark solves problems in win over Illinois - Info Chestr

Many (but not all) of those curiosities found positive answers Sunday afternoon, as the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes responded to a discouraging loss at Indiana with an encouraging 101-85 win against a dangerous Illinois team before 14,998 fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Caitlin Clark recorded her 16th career triple-double, leading four Hawkeyes in double figures and six who scored at least eight points. Much-needed contributions from Clark’s supporting cast were consistently prevalent.

“We’ve needed this. We want this to happen,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “When other people are doing what they should be doing, it makes (Clark’s) job so much easier. And we are more enjoyable to watch in that situation.”

Here is a more detailed snapshot of some of the answers that accompanied some of Iowa’s pregame questions.

Molly Davis' 17 points with five assists was a much-needed boost for the Hawkeyes in their 101-85 win against Illinois.

Could Molly Davis and/or Gabbie Marshall break out of their backcourt funks?

In the case of Davis, there was an early sign that the fifth-year senior was back to herself.

On Illinois’ very first possession, a transition attempt, the diminutive Davis roared in and swatted away a layup attempt by 5-foot-10 Adalia Mckenzie, Davis’ first blocked shot since the season opener on Nov. 6.

Davis had been silent for Iowa’s past four games, scoring only nine points in a span of 2½ weeks. Of course, she was battling the flu in two of those games and barely played. Her presence was sorely missed in a fourth-quarter Feb. 11 collapse at Nebraska.

On Sunday, Davis delivered a 10-point second quarter on her way to 17 points, matching the total she accrued in a big Feb. 3 road win at Maryland that preceded her four-game mini-slump. Davis also dished out five assists, the most she’s had in any game since Jan. 5.

Davis’ performance was punctuated by an interception of an Illinois pass and breakaway, one-handed layup that pushed Iowa’s lead to an insurmountable 90-70.

“This is the Molly that we know, and this is exactly how she was playing before she got a little sick,” Clark said. “It was just getting her feet back under her, getting the reps again, getting back in shape. She’s capable of having these type of performances every single night.”

Davis attempted a season-high 12 shots, a reflection of her more assertive style Sunday in 29:20 of action. She held her follow-through on two of her made 3s, showing a little extra swagger.

Marshall, meanwhile, couldn’t get untracked. The crowd consistently got hopeful each time one of her three 3-point attempts was launched, but groaned “ohhh” each time her shot caromed off the rim. Marshall finished with two points in 23:38 and is three points shy of 1,000 for her career.

Marshall is 5-for-24 from 3-point range in Iowa’s last six games. She heated up in the final stretch of last season and the postseason, offering coaches some hope that she can rekindle some of that 2023 magic. But Taylor McCabe going 2-for-2 from 3 on Sunday won’t slow the cries for the sophomore from Nebraska (45.1% from 3 this season vs. Marshall’s 31.1%) to get more minutes.

Feb 25, 2024; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes fans show their support before the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

How would Caitlin Clark respond from a down game by her standards?

Clark slammed her chair and spiked a blue water bottle to the ground during an early timeout after her 3-point shot was off in the early going Sunday. She didn’t cross into double-digits scoring until the 7:35 mark of the third quarter. Yet, on the heels of a four-point second half and 3-for-16 game from 3 at Indiana, Clark put together a well-rounded performance that was completed with her first triple-double since Jan. 10 at Purdue: 24 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.

Clark acknowledged that she took herself out of the game, knowing she needed a break after a slow shooting start. Of her early antics?

“Sometimes you’ve got to let it out and regroup,” Clark said. “Obviously I didn’t shoot it great tonight, but it wasn’t terrible. … I think I responded well in the second half and made some big shots for us, made a couple 3s in the fourth quarter.”

Clark wound up 6-for-18 from the floor, including 5-for-14 from distance. Her only 2-pointer was a turnaround jumper in the first quarter, meaning none of her points came near the rim. Clark normally feasts on opponents with her dribble-drives or transition scores, but Illinois had a plan to bottle her up and force others to do damage.

“They just collapsed on every single drive tonight. It was kind of hard for me to get my feet in the paint and get good looks at the rim,” Clark said. “They didn’t really adjust to that. … We made 17 3s, so it was kind of like they were going to live with that and make us prove ourselves from the outside.”

As a team, Iowa was 17-for-37 from long range (45.9%), including 12-for-23 from those not named Clark (52.2%). That included a career-high three 3-pointers (on five attempts) from Kylie Feuerbach in 15:57 of court time. Kate Martin (13 points) went 3-for-6 from deep, and so did Davis.

In the 86-69 loss at Indiana, Iowa shot 5-for-28 from distance.

“Coming back here, you want to have a really good performance and feel really great about yourself going into the last week of regular-season play,” Clark said. “And I thought that’s exactly what we did. We moved the ball well; we shared the ball. The amount of shots we took was evenly distributed pretty well. And like coach said, that’s what we’re going to need going forward.”

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder says when Hannah Stuelke plays with confidence, she can do anything. She also is concerned about Stuelke's backups.

What is the post plan as the postseason nears?

There was good and concerning elements on display Sunday.

The good: Hannah Stuelke. The sophomore surged with 20 points and nine rebounds – her best performance since the 47-point breakout Feb. 8 against Penn State. Stuelke had trouble getting untracked at Indiana, shooting 4-for-9 from the floor against Indiana and daunting post Mackenzie Holmes.

In this matchup, the attention Clark consistently drew freed up Stuelke for an abundance of open layups. Stuelke finished 9-for-12 from the floor.

“I’m not saying Illinois didn’t have good post defenders but Mackenzie Holmes is a pretty good post defender,” Bluder said. “When Hannah plays with confidence, when she goes out and believes in herself, she can do anything. And sometimes I think that is her biggest obstacle. She gets in her own way.”

Stuelke is sometimes sheepish in interviews and added simply after hearing Bluder: “I agree with everything she said.”

Whatever it requires, getting the confident version of Stuelke for the home stretch is imperative for the Hawkeyes (24-4, 13-3 Big Ten Conference play).

That’s because Iowa isn’t getting much of anything from Addison O’Grady, Sharon Goodman and A.J. Ediger at the backup center position. The trio’s combined statistics Sunday: two points and two rebounds on 1-for-3 shooting in 9:53 of court time.

Goodman’s rating was minus-10 in her brief stint on the floor. O’Grady has gotten the most time of those three of late but has scored no more than seven points in any Big Ten game. Goodman has scored four total points since Jan. 16. Ediger had an eight-point burst Jan. 31 at Northwestern but hasn’t gotten much action at all as the No. 3 backup post.

Bluder’s most pointed comments in Sunday’s postgame session surrounded this topic.

“I still would like more consistency out of our backup post player,” Bluder said. “The one thing that coaches just cringe about is inconsistency. Be consistently good or consistently bad, but be something. Now, it’s like we’re almost gambling on who to put in between the three of them, and that’s hard. It makes indecision, and it doesn’t give you enough reps with that person. That’s the one thing that I think that we’re still battling with.”

There’s not much time left to figure this out. Iowa visits Minnesota on Wednesday (8 p.m. CT, Peacock) before returning home for the regular-season finale vs. No. 2 Ohio State on Sunday (Noon, FOX).

https://www.hawkcentral.com/story/sports/college/iowa/basketball-women/2024/02/25/iowa-women-address-lingering-questions-in-rout-of-illinois-caitlin-clark-lisa-bluder/72684829007/

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