As the No. 6 Michigan women’s basketball team took the floor in a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A win against No. 21 Iowa and the Wolverines would secure their first regular-season Big Ten Championship in program history. A loss and the elusive banner would once again escape them.
The Wolverines (22-5 overall, 13-4 Big Ten) came up short against the Hawkeyes (20-7, 14-4), losing 104-80, and watching a potential Big Ten title slip away in the process.
“In this environment, tonight, it was really difficult,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
Michigan came out of the gates hot. In the opening minutes, freshman guard Laila Phelia connected on a pair of 3-pointers. Senior guard Danielle Rauch and junior guard Maddie Nolan added a 3-pointer apiece, propelling the Wolverines to an early nine-point lead. But Iowa matched Michigan’s efficiency from deep, and each team finished the first quarter 4-for-7 from behind the arc.
The Wolverines’ effective scoring failed to carry over into the second quarter, and their inefficiency was highlighted by a 6:11 minute drought from the field. While Michigan sputtered on the offensive end, the Hawkeyes — led by premier guard Caitlin Clark — found their groove.
Clark racked up 13 points and 4 assists in the second quarter as the Hawkeyes jumped out to a 14 point lead at the half. Her ability to score from anywhere inside halfcourt gave Michigan’s defense fits. When pressed, Clark would find an open teammate in the paint. If the Wolverines’ sagged off, she pulled up from 30 feet — and often found the mark.
“Caitlin Clark made a couple threes,” Barnes Arico said. “They started to make some threes, and their confidence got going a little bit in the second quarter.”
As Iowa’s star player went to work, Michigan’s did, too. Hillmon exploited the Hawkeyes’ frontcourt throughout the first three quarters, and it started to pay dividends. By the midway point of the third quarter, centers Monika Czinano and Addison O’Grady, as well as forward McKenna Warnock, had picked up three fouls each. Hillmon finished the game with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
Senior forward Emily Kiser joined Hillmon in taking advantage of Iowa’s foul-riddled frontcourt, and the pair combined for 10 third-quarter points, cutting the Hawkeye lead to just eight points with two minutes left in the quarter.
But just as Michigan looked like it might mount a comeback, Clark clapped back. Hard.
Clark went on to pour in another 14 points in the third quarter — hitting all four of her 3-point attempts — to extend the Hawkeye lead to 17 heading into the final frame. The Big Ten title looked all but out of reach for the Wolverines.
Iowa’s lead continued to expand into the fourth quarter. Michigan had no answer to the Hawkeyes’ hot shooting, and Iowa poured in a season-high 16 3-pointers on 28 attempts.
“Iowa played unbelievable,” Barnes Arico said. “They made 16 threes. I think it’s hard to counter 16 threes, that’s a pretty special night for them.”
Clark led the charge, finishing with 38 points while shooting 8-for-11 from deep and dishing out 11 assists in an offensive masterclass.
As time expired, the Wolverines left disappointed.
“Even though we beat Maryland twice, beat Ohio State twice and beat Iowa once, we’re not a co-sharer of the Big Ten,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s pretty crushing. The reality is we didn’t get to play (Illinois), so we did everything we needed to do over the course of the year and we’re not co-Big Ten champs.”
They came so close, compiling a historic season, but ultimately ended the regular season with a dud, failing to capture the program’s first Big Ten championship.