Iowa Moves One Step Closer to Storybook Ending After Team Win Against UConn

Despite an uncharacteristically slow start from Caitlin Clark, the rest of the Hawkeyes answered the call and helped give the star one last shot at a national championship.
Apr 5, 2024; Cleveland, OH, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts after a three pointer during a Final Four game against UConn.
Apr 5, 2024; Cleveland, OH, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts after a three pointer during a Final Four game against UConn. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This almost looked like it was the end for Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies walked into the Final Four with a clear plan: terrorize Clark. And through the first 20 minutes, it was working. Clark was 0–6 from beyond the arc and had just six points at the half. 

If Clark was supposed to be the hero of this game, then UConn’s Nika Mühl was cast as the villain, serving as Clark’s shadow from the jump and visibly frustrating her all game long. And with Clark’s college career—and the chance to cap it off with a national title—on the line, it was sophomore Hannah Stuelke who stepped in as the reliable sidekick to push the Hawkeyes past the Huskies, 71–69, putting Iowa back in the national championship for the second straight year. 

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Hannah Stuelke (45) dribbles the ball against a UConn defender.
Apr 5, 2024; Cleveland, OH, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes forward Hannah Stuelke (45) dribbles the ball against a UConn defender. / Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

This was just the second game all season that Clark did not lead the Hawkeyes in scoring. And like the last time (a February game against Penn State) it was Stuelke who stepped up with 23 points, almost double her highest-scoring game in the tournament before this. A game billed as Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark was anything but for most of the first half—both were held to just two points in the first quarter. Instead, both players relied on their teams in what became a relentless duel until the final buzzer. 

“It’s not just me. It’s not just one player. That’s not what this is,” Clark said. “We wouldn’t be at this point right now if it was just one player. And everybody comes up and makes really big plays when we need them.” 

While Clark watched shot after shot bounce out, she said she never felt thrown off. “Honestly my shots felt really good in the first half. I thought a few of them were in,” she said. The Hawkeyes entered halftime down six and with more turnovers (12) than field goals (11), a sign that UConn’s defensive schemes were working. But much like with Clark and her uncharacteristic game beyond the arc, panic never really set in for Iowa. The Hawkeyes got within six at halftime, which should have been a sign to the Huskies that this game wasn’t as out of hand as what it might have felt. 

Instead, Iowa came out with a significantly better offensive effort in the second half. Having scored just 26 points in the entire first half, the Hawkeyes had 25 in the third—and that’s when a couple signature threes finally started falling for Clark. But any time the Hawkeyes may have found momentum, UConn continued to answer and the game entered the final frame tied at 51. It wasn’t until Gabbie Marshall drew a late foul against Aaliyah Edwards with 3.9 seconds left that the Hawkeyes could breathe. 

For Bueckers, the other half of this top billing, she has a chance at running it all back again next season, having already announced she would return for the 2024–25 season. But finding any perspective on how this UConn team managed to find its way in the Final Four, despite a slow start to the season and playing with an extremely shortened bench for more than two months, will take time for Bueckers. 

“The only thing you can really feel right now is the sting of the loss,” she said in a tearful press conference alongside her teammates and coach. “... It takes a while to process after the season, win or loss, the whole journey of it all.”

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) controls the ball against two UConn defenders.
Apr 5, 2024; Cleveland, OH, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) controls the ball against two UConn defenders. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The ending was especially bittersweet for Mühl, who put on a defensive masterclass against Clark in her final game as a Huskie. When she wasn’t making Clark work for space, Mühl was snagging rebounds and coming up with big shots when UConn needed them most. 

“You saw the epitome of what Nika is—a tenacious defender, does everything this team needs her to do, controls the offense, plays with so much heart and energy, and plays with her whole soul,” Bueckers said. 

Bueckers and Clark have had many parallels throughout their careers, which is what made this matchup so intriguing for many. But the biggest difference is that with a loss, Bueckers still has a chance to run it back again with Auriemma and the Huskies. For Clark, this is it. And now she gets a second shot at a title, with yet another juicy matchup against an undefeated South Carolina that promises to set more viewership records come Sunday. 

“We know what South Carolina brings to the table. We know we’re going to have our hands full,” Clark said of Sunday’s matchup. “The way that [the Gamecocks] played tonight was incredible. But it’s the national championship. It’s the last game of my career. It’s the last game for five people on this team. So I don’t think motivation will be hard to come by.”


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Kristen Nelson

KRISTEN NELSON

Kristen Nelson is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated focused on women's sports. She also enjoys covering hockey and previously wrote for NHL.com.