Caitlin Clark battles through West Virginia's physical defense, but it might be the best plan to slow her down

caitlin clark wvu defense

13 seconds into Monday night’s matchup between Iowa and West Virgina, Caitlin Clark tried to drive to the basket and was fouled by Mountaineers guard JJ Quinerly. When play resumed, Clark again forced her way into the paint. This time, there was no whistle to bail her out as she flailed around at the rim. 

Those two moments set the tone for what was to be one of the toughest nights of the season for both Clark and the Hawkeyes. They eventually outlasted the Mountaineers, 64-54, to earn a trip to the Sweet 16. Clark finished with 32 points to surpass Kelsey Plum for the NCAA Division I single-season scoring record. 

But this was not the “Caitlin Clark show” everyone has become accustomed to seeing. Those who tuned in to see that were instead treated to a lesson on aggressive and physical defense from the Mountaineers, who made Clark work for every single point and fell just short of the biggest upset of the tournament. Clark shot 8-of-22 from the field for her sixth-least efficient game of the season, and nearly had as many turnovers (six) as made baskets. 

“I know I’ve given everything to this program, same with these two and there’s a lot to be proud of,” Clark said. “There was a lot of highs, a lot of lows and that’s what makes these moments so special. I’m just thankful, I’m grateful and gonna soak this in.” 

Everywhere Clark went, she was bumped and pestered, and the frustration was evident early when she was called for an offensive foul and made the “flopping” gesture on her way back down the floor. Even the few shots she did hit in the first quarter were difficult 3-pointers off the dribble. It rarely got any easier the rest of the night. 

The third quarter was the only time Clark got hot all game long, and it’s no surprise the Hawkeyes took control as a result. They won that frame 22-14 to take a double-digit lead into the fourth. Neither she nor the team was able to keep that momentum going into the final frame. 

Iowa didn’t score for the first 5:14 of the fourth quarter, and only made one field goal in the entire 10 minutes. That was in large part because Clark simply couldn’t shake West Virginia’s perimeter defense. All of her looks were contested and started moving further behind the line. 

By the three-minute mark, the Mountaineers had tied the game. That’s when Clark finally decided to get to the basket, and she drew a foul to put the Hawkeyes back in front. She would live at the line the rest of the way, making eight free throws down the stretch to put the game away. 

As great as Clark is — and she truly is one of the best players college basketball has ever seen — this game was further proof that big, physical defenses can cause her problems on certain nights. It was also further proof that you better match her on the other end, because the points are coming, one way or another. 

“I think we used our crowd,” Clark said. “We gave up a 10-0 run to start the quarter, but this team was never flustered. That just speaks to our experience. Couldn’t be happier for this group. We wanted to go out on a high note [at Carver-Hawkeye Arena].” 

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