Clark eyes fast start in her last Iowa home game

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Caitlin Clark said she won’t be thinking about the fact that Monday’s NCAA tournament second-round matchup with West Virginia will be the last home game of her Iowa career. Instead, she and the Hawkeyes – the Albany 2 Region No. 1 seed – are fully consumed by the battle they expect to get from the No. 8 seed Mountaineers (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

“Coming out with a strong start will be really important for us; I think that goes for any game,” Clark said Sunday. “But our group has played in quite a few March Madness games where we didn’t come out and set the tone, and we were able to take a breath and respond.

“I think understanding we’re not going to win by 25 points. That’s not what this is at this point. It’s going to come down to single possessions, and you have to execute possessions. You need to get [offensive] boards. We need to not turn the ball over. Little things like that.”

It didn’t escape the Hawkeyes’ notice that the Big Ten regular-season champion Ohio State Buckeyes, who gave Iowa one of its four losses this season, were upset on their home court Sunday in the second round. The No. 2 seed Buckeyes lost 75-63 to the No. 7 seed Duke Blue Devils in the Portland 3 Region.

Two years ago, No. 2 seed Iowa lost at home in the second round, 64-62 to No. 10 Creighton. Last season, the Hawkeyes were a No. 2 seed again and didn’t pull away until late in a 74-66 victory over No. 10 seed Georgia, also in the second round at home. That was a two-point game with under a minute left, before Clark sealed the victory by scoring the last six points.

“Our group knows better than anybody this is a game that is going to be close,” Clark said of facing the Big 12’s Mountaineers. “Doesn’t really matter what number is next to your name. That’s what makes this tournament so fun. You’ve got to come ready to play. Georgia gave us a great battle [last year]. It just shows how important singular possessions are in these types of games.”

West Virginia, which finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the Big 12 with Iowa State and Baylor, is under its second new coach in as many years. Mark Kellogg took over for this season after Dawn Plitzuweit left after just one year in Morgantown, to go to Minnesota.

Kellogg has implemented a similar kind of pressure defense that longtime Mountaineers coach Mike Carey, who retired after the 2021-22 season, was known for. West Virginia led the Big 12 in steals this season, averaging 13.9 per game, and is sparked by guards JJ Quinerly (19.9 PPG, 2.9 SPG) and Jordan Harrison (13.9 PPG, 3.9 SPG).

“I think we’re really good defensively,” Kellogg said. “We’re aggressive by nature, but we’re not the biggest team, either. We don’t have a ton of size, so we kind of have to make up for it in other areas.”

For Clark and the Iowa seniors, including fellow starters Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall, it will be their last game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where every home game sold out this season.

But Clark said the Hawkeyes are not dwelling on that now.

“The environment is too competitive. You’re wanting to win so bad, that’s not really what you’re focused on,” Clark said of the emotion of the game. “That’s something that will hit you either after the game or once the season ends. More than anything, we need to use the crowd to our advantage. Having 15,000 people that want to cheer for you, that’s huge.”

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