Defending Iowa’s Caitlin Clark: Challenge her shot, and hope

January 30, 2022 GMT
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) walks onto the court during an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) walks onto the court during an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) walks onto the court during an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)
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Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) walks onto the court during an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)
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Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) walks onto the court during an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)

Over two years, many have tried and most have failed to effectively defend Iowa star and national scoring leader Caitlin Clark.

“I’m not sure there really is a great strategy,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Lawson and other coaches naturally acknowledge the basketball axiom that scorers are going to score. Clark has done that night in and night out since she arrived in Iowa City, leading the nation with 26.6 points per game as a freshman and at 25.5 heading into February of her sophomore season.

Clark needed only 40 games to reach 1,000 career points, the fastest by a Big Ten player. Finding a way to tamp down Clark’s prodigious output is a tough ask made harder by the fact she has complementary players around her such as center Monika Czinano and dead-eye shooter McKenna Warnock.

The 6-foot Clark is one of the best passers in the country and leads the nation with 8.1 assists per game, many of those going from the perimeter into the post to Czinano for easy baskets. She has a Big Ten-record four double-doubles this season.

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But when opponents have gotten Clark off her game, even just a little, they’ve been able to have success against the 23rd-ranked Hawkeyes (14-4, 8-1 Big Ten), who host No. 22 Ohio State (15-4, 7-3) on Monday night.

The key, judging from statistics, is to cut off her drives to the basket and force her to shoot 3-pointers under pressure. In Iowa’s four losses, she has shot 17.5% from distance compared with 30.5% in wins.

Clark has attempted 148 3s in all games, tied for 18th most nationally. Among players who have launched that many, Clark’s 40 makes are the fewest.

Duke mostly had guard Vanessa de Jesus covering Clark straight-up in its 79-64 win on Dec. 2. Clark still scored 22 points, but she was 1 of 13 on 3s and 9 of 27 overall.

“For us, it was just being solid within our system,” Lawson said, “and make sure every shot she takes is contested. We didn’t bring extra defenders to her. We really wanted to challenge the players guarding her to do a good job and stay in front and make her work for things.”

IUPUI upset Iowa 74-73 on Dec. 21 and had Horizon League all-defensive team member Rachel McLimore stick close to Clark almost constantly, and not just to prevent her from scoring.

Jaguars coach Austin Parkinson said McLimore or whoever else guarded Clark was instructed to not go to the basket to rebound. That defender went to Clark to slow her down in transition because Clark’s up-the-floor passing ability leads to easy baskets. The Jaguars also put a soft trap on Clark when the shot clock went under 10 seconds in an effort to keep her from attacking the basket.

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And then the Jaguars hoped Clark didn’t get hot from the outside. She didn’t, going 1 for 7 on 3s and finishing with 19 points — her season low in a game in which she played at least 30 minutes.

“We wanted to make sure she was challenged,” Parkinson said, “but if she hit five or six 3s, we were going to pat her on the back, say great game and hop on the bus. We had to kind of pick and choose and felt like that was, for our team at least, the best way to go.”

Clark has seen the gamut of defenses in her career. She makes opponents pay for double-teaming her with precision passes. Man-to-man defense opens possibilities for driving to the basket. She shoots over zone defenses.

Clark said the most creative defense she’s seen is Northwestern’s 1-1-3 zone known as the “Blizzard.” The Wildcats kept Clark under control the first three times she faced them. She scored 28 points against them on Friday, and Iowa won 72-67 in overtime.

Opponents have always tried to get physical with the 6-foot Clarkr whether she’s going to the hoop or moving through the interior. Bumps, bruises and scratched-up arms are the price she pays for being a generational talent.

“Just watch as she cuts through the lane and watch the people holding her,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Watch the people just, I mean, chucking her as she goes to the lane. That’s the stuff that infuriates me that doesn’t get called, because you can’t impede the progress of an offensive player, and she’s certainly having that happen to her.”

Clark accepts that opponents are going to try to rough her up, and she capitalizes on it. She attempts 7.1 free throws a game to rank fifth nationally and makes a Big Ten-leading 90.7%.

“We don’t just want the ball, we want the and-one,” she said. “I think that’s always kind of been a part of my game — creating contact and using that to my ability. Whether it’s using my step-back or getting to the rim and finishing, I think it’s kind of something I’ve kind of gotten better at as time has gone on.”

And if her shot doesn’t want to fall?

“I’m the type,” she said, “that’s going to keep shooting.”

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AP freelance writer John Bohnenkamp in Iowa City, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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