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For Iowa Fans, Caitlin Clark Can End a String of Heartbreaks

SportFor Iowa Fans, Caitlin Clark Can End a String of Heartbreaks

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Second-seeded Iowa led top-seed UNLV by 20 points in the 1987 men’s basketball Elite Eight.

The 1970 Iowa men’s basketball team still holds the Big Ten record for points per game (102.3) and led Jacksonville by one point with seconds remaining in their Sweet 16 matchup. Ronnie Lester was the best player in the 1980 Final Four, and the Hawkeyes point guard proved it in his first 10 minutes against Louisville.

Ronnie Harmon was an All-American running back entering the 1986 Rose Bowl against UCLA, and No. 3 Iowa still had a shot at the national title. The unbeaten Hawkeyes held a four-point lead on Michigan State after a punt with less than 10 minutes remaining in the 2015 Big Ten football title game.

With 11 seconds left in the 1993 Final Four, Iowa’s women’s basketball team had possession of the ball down one to Ohio State in overtime. Megan Gustafson was the consensus national player of the year in 2019 approaching the Elite Eight against Baylor.

In college athletics’ three highest-profile sports, Iowa’s upper-level history is one of heartbreak.

UNLV rallied for a three-point win. Pembrook Burrows III’s tip-in forged a 104-103 loss. Lester injured his knee after connecting on every shot attempt. Harmon fumbled four times and dropped an easy touchdown pass. Michigan State scored a touchdown with 27 seconds left on a 22-play drive. Laurie Aaron’s slip in the lane with three seconds left doomed the 1993 women. A Baylor blowout.

Every mention in Iowa elicits a wince from people who remember those moments. To this day, those games are discussed with “what-if” components. What if Lester were healthy? What if Spartans running back LJ Scott didn’t stretch for the extra foot across the goal line? What if Harmon didn’t … this goes on and on.

That type of history weighs on a fan base and can topple teams approaching the mountaintop. That even goes for Iowa’s current women’s basketball squad. The Hawkeyes reached the 2023 NCAA title game only to lose 102-85 to LSU. Controversial officiating decisions and postgame taunts combined with season-long hype applied enough pressure on the Hawkeyes to fold at any point this season, and especially in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they turned pressure into production and scored a 94-87 win against LSU on Monday to advance to the Final Four.

“Honestly, people thought we had a lot of pressure coming in,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “People kept telling me, ‘This is so hard, your season is going to be so hard.’ I kept saying, ‘Why are we focusing on the hard? Why are we doing that?’

“Billie Jean King is one of my idols. She has a book, “Pressure is a Privilege.” I’ve used that book this year. She wrote that on a piece of paper; it’s framed in my locker room for me. We believe that pressure is a really good thing because that means you’ve done some pretty special things to have pressure on you.”

But not every team absorbs the situation in the same manner. Expectations can apply pressure and any crack can lead to flooding. That happened in 2010 to Iowa’s football program. One year after an 11-2 record (the only two losses taking place after their starting quarterback was injured), an Orange Bowl victory and a No. 7 final ranking, the Hawkeyes returned nearly every player at pivotal positions and began the season ranked No. 8. By season’s end, injuries stripped away its depth, and Iowa lost five games in which it led or the score was tied in the final five minutes.

This women’s basketball team faced a similar path this year, only it overcame the spotlight, departures and injuries. Iowa lost multiyear starters Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock but returned the core of its national runner-up squad. Caitlin Clark entered the season as a bona fide superstar as the reigning consensus player of the year. Starting guards Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin returned for an extra year because of the pandemic, while key subs Hannah Stuelke, Molly Davis and Sydney Affolter were nudged into bigger roles. But replacing Czinano was a big question — she scored 2,413 points and was lethal in the post.

Stuelke is a power forward but different from the stretch-four that Warnock played or the true center spot held down by Czinano. Iowa had one available scholarship and looked into the transfer portal for a post but couldn’t find the right fit. Instead of gambling on an unknown, Bluder stood firm on her roster amid criticism.

“We were looking for specific things in the transfer portal. We didn’t find what we were looking for,” Bluder said. “You have to be special to play at the University of Iowa. It’s not just a basketball factory. We don’t take just the best basketball players. We pick the best basketball players that fit our culture. We don’t want to bring somebody in that wouldn’t fit our culture.

“We wanted to make sure if we brought somebody in, it was going to be somebody that was an impact player, not just a role player, but an impact player right away. Those numbers were kind of limited. It does give us a little bit of feeling of satisfaction that, yeah, we had just enough.”

Bluder adjusted her lineup to run a four-guard offense rather than with a traditional center. The uptempo Hawkeyes lead the country in scoring average and still rank 25th in rebounding margin. Then in the regular-season finale, Davis left with a serious knee injury. Affolter was the team’s top reserve as a combo guard/forward and entered the starting lineup. The injury left Iowa without a true center or the four-guard lineup that guided the Hawkeyes to a No. 1 seed.

Yet where injuries crippled the 2010 football program and cost them in late-game moments, this women’s team has won 10 straight games, including eight since Davis’ injury. They rallied around one another, and their chemistry ushered them through adversity. It held up when they battled a physical West Virginia squad in the second round and when they faced last year’s tormentor Monday in the Elite Eight.

“It’s maturity, quite honestly,” Bluder said. “They’ve been there before, they know what it’s like. Once you know what it’s like and what it requires, it’s a little bit easier to follow that same recipe again.

“We have been in some tough situations. The leadership of Kate Martin and Caitlin and Gabbie has been extraordinary. So I really credit those guys for that. But honestly, I think that it would be unusual for us to not have the situation where the atmosphere is just crazy. I mean, that’s what we’re used to playing in. So I think it would be unusual for us not to have that kind of craziness around one of our games.”

Iowa could stumble into “what-if” territory like its predecessors. But in beating LSU with the nation’s eyes upon them, the Hawkeyes unshackled themselves from the gut punches of the past. They’re perhaps the only Iowa team among the basketball and football editions before them to live up to sky-high expectations. And if they win two more games, these Hawkeyes will fly higher than them all.

 (Photo: Greg Fiume / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)


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