Michigan dominated the first three quarters, jumping out to a 25-point lead with just over three minutes left in the third. An Iowa comeback seemed highly improbable.
But, not impossible.
The events of the ensuing fourth quarter culminated in what became one of the most bizarre finishes the Wolverines have seen this season. And it was all because of one person:
Hawkeye guard Caitlin Clark.
“(Clark) just has the ability to make shots from anywhere,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “But our response, especially being shorthanded, and the way that we came out and the way that we defended early, we did a much better job.”
With senior guard Leigha Brown out with a lower left leg injury, the task of guarding the Iowa star fell to freshman guard Laila Phelia.
For most of the game, Phelia — along with an occasional hedger or double-teamer — limited Clark’s impact. While Clark was off the ball, Phelia often looked to deny any pass that might come her way. While Clark was on the ball, Phelia did her best to stay in front of her.
And for a while, that worked. Clark shot a lackluster 6-for-19 in the game’s first three quarters. But just as the Wolverines turned to slam the door shut on the Hawkeyes, Clark managed to sneak her foot in the doorway.
It started slow. Clark hit a pair of jumpers and weaseled her way into the paint for a layup to swiftly put six points on the board to open the fourth quarter.
Then — midway through the final frame — Clark caught the ball after a Michigan bucket, pushed it up the court, and pulled up from the Block ‘M’. It was a jaw-dropping attempt, but it was within Clark’s range. As the 35-footer found the mark, what had once been a 25 point Michigan lead now stood at a modest nine.
With three minutes left in the game, Clark did it again. Two steps after crossing halfcourt, Clark heaved a 40-footer that once again connected.
“(Clark) is a tough competitor,” senior forward Naz Hillmon said. “She’s a tough player. So, walking into that game we knew we weren’t going to hold her to zero. Unless you have her sitting on the bench with fouls, you’re not going to hold her to zero points.”
Clark’s fourth quarter was an astonishing performance, she finished with 25 points in the final 10 minutes — shooting 8-for-10 from the field and making four 3-pointers — en route to a 46 point performance.
Clark’s arsenal was on full display, from deep 3-pointers to step-backs to getting to the line. These weapons helped keep the Hawkeyes close, but the Wolverines withstood the bombardment and captured the win.
“We’ll guard Caitlin Clark, and try to stay with her,” Phelia said. “I felt like it was a little frustrating. But, in the end, we got the win so that doesn’t matter.”
It was in the same manner that they’ve won all their games. Michigan outscored Iowa in the paint by a margin of 54 to 34 and outrebounded the Hawkeyes by 17. Ultimately, that’s why Clark’s outburst proved insufficient in overcoming the lead that the Wolverines had amassed.
“I think just knowing what it was, coming into the game, was a big part of it,” Hillmon said. “But then just trying to change things around, trying to make other people score. We built our lead doing what we’ve done. We’ve won so many games doing what we do. That was our mentality going into it.
“Continue to play Michigan basketball.”
And that brand of Michigan basketball — a strong paint and rebounding presence — was enough to stave off Clark’s threatening onslaught.