Southeastern Louisiana came into the NCAA women's tournament with experience against the best. The Lady Lions opened their season on a West Coast road trip that included Utah, a 2-seed in Greenville 2, and returned to their home state to play at LSU, a 3-seed in that same regional.
“Each of them had a very important piece to their puzzle,” Lions head coach Ayla Guzzardo said. “Imma be honest though. We haven’t seen anything like Caitlin Clark.”
The No. 15 seed Lions fell behind No. 2 seed Iowa quickly in the first round of the Seattle 4 regional on Friday, ultimately bowing out of the tournament, 95-43, in a margin of defeat larger than that of Utah (37, their previous worst) and LSU (8). Clark scored 12 of the Hawkeyes' first 15 points and flirted with a triple-double, which would have been her fifth this season and 11th overall.
The Iowa starters were subbed out early in the fourth to roars from another sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd. Tickets sold out in 52 minutes and were reselling for double that of the next highest-priced first-round site in Connecticut, per ESPN. Iowa averaged 10,738 fans a game heading into the tournament, which ranks second in the nation and would set the conference mark held by Wisconsin (10,455 in ’97-98).
Clark led all scorers with 26 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in 29 minutes. It was her second tournament game of at least 20 points and 10 assists, making her the only player with multiple.
“What she can do with the ball from scoring, advantage to her passing,” Guzzardo said. “I think that’s where we almost became [fans] on the sideline, ‘Oh, that was a great pass.’ … What she can do has just been amazing.”
Iowa (27-6) relies heavily on Clark, a National Player of the Year contender from nearby West Des Moines, but will go only so far as the play of her teammates. Two of her three highest-scoring games this season were losses, including 45 points against NC State in December.
Much of that complementary production falls on Monika Czinano, her fifth-year mate in the paint who completes the “Law Firm,” as the duo are called. For the Hawkeyes to get past the second round, where they were upset last season, and make a Final Four run, which they’ve only done once in 1993, they need their hometown X factor who showed up again on Friday.
Freshman 6-foot-2 forward Hannah Stuelke, who grew up less than 30 miles from Iowa’s arena, scored 13 points in 14 minutes on a 5-of-5 day, her fourth perfect outing of the season and third going 5-of-5.
“When we have her playing like that and she can come off the bench, it just gives us a whole ’nother weapon that people have to scheme for,” Clark said. “I think Hannah played tremendous tonight.”
Her scoring trailed only Clark and Czinano (22 points). They were the only three of 14 Hawkeyes to see the floor who scored double digits. The team was a collective 60% from the floor, including 40% from 3-point range, and assisting on 27 of 36 shots.
Addison O’Grady was also perfect (3-of-3) in six minutes off the bench and highlighted by Clark after the game. Freshman guard Taylor McCabe had one of the team’s eight 3s and earned a monster reaction from the crowd.
Stuelke, the first Iowa player to win Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year since Melissa Dixon in 2013, is averaging 7 points and 4.2 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game. Her 61.1% field-goal clip trails only Czinano in Iowa players averaging more than two shots a game and ranks 28th in Division I. And her player efficiency rating (PER) of 25.8 trails only Clark (41) and Czinano (30.5).
“I think she’s a crowd favorite because she’s fun to watch,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “The way she gets off the floor, the way she runs the floor, it’s beautiful.”
In the team’s biggest games, she’s been clutch. Her two other perfect 5-of-5 games were in a tight loss to Indiana, a 1-seed in the tournament, and the Feb. 2 win over Maryland, also a 2-seed. She can sub in well for Czinano and has formed a close on-court connection with Clark, crucial for Iowa’s success into next season when this longtime starting five breaks up after graduation. The one thing she’ll need to improve is her free throws, which sit at 45.8%.
Stuelke's five rebounds against Southeastern Louisiana tied O'Grady for most off the bench, trailing the eight each by Czinano and McKenna Warnock, and will be critical for the second-round game against No. 10 Georgia. The Bulldogs upset an injury-riddled Florida State team earlier in the day to face Iowa at 2 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.
Georgia (22-11) keeps opponents to 58.3 points per game, top 50 in the nation, and are active on the boards with a 37.3% offensive rebounding rate. Iowa ranks fifth in defensive rebounds (76%) while opponents hustle to get back so they aren’t burned in transition by Clark’s full-court assists.
Stuelke has found herself on the receiving end of quite a few of those already, piecing her way into what they hope is Iowa’s Final Four puzzle.