The phrase “must-win game” is often overused. Aside from NCAA Tournament games, there are very few real must-win games in a basketball season.
But there are plenty of games that a team really needs to win, whether it’s to build a team’s resume for the NCAA Tournament or to change the direction of the team’s season. Today’s game at Nebraska was both.
It’s safe to say this season hasn’t gone the way Iowa wanted it to. The Hawkeyes expected to be a Top 10 caliber team and instead have started out 7-4. Worse, the Hawkeyes have won just two games in the past month, and have very few victories over potential NCAA Tournament teams. Iowa needed this victory to turn around the momentum of its season. To get some positive feelings back in the locker room. But they also needed a win to add to their resume for NCAA Tournament seeding.
The first few minutes of the game started about as well as they could for Iowa. The offense was attacking the basket and opening up shooters for threes. The defense was contesting everything and crashing the boards well. Iowa used that effort to jump out to a 17-7 lead.
But then the Iowa defense started to break down. Nebraska started passing quickly and freeing up three-point shooters. When those shots didn’t go down, long bounces off the rim made rebounding difficult and Nebraska often got multiple bites at the apple. All told, Iowa led 27-24 after the first quarter, but Nebraska was very much back in the game after an early deficit.
The beginning of the second quarter was a track meet. Both teams were playing fast, and both were scoring on the majority of their possessions. Late in the quarter, Nebraska finally missed shots on a few possessions in a row, and Iowa extended their lead to 50-39. Nebraska came back, though, and closed the half on a run. Iowa still led 52-46 at halftime, but had again let Nebraska back into the game. Iowa shot 68% in the first half, but surrendered 12 offensive rebounds to Nebraska.
In the third quarter, both offenses started to slow down… a bit. Early in the quarter, Iowa kept the lead steady, as both teams made or missed on possessions at about the same rate. Nebraska went on a run in the back half of the third quarter, though, and briefly tied the game 67-67. Nebraska then had multiple chances to take the lead, but couldn’t. Caitlin Clark was fouled right at the end of the third and made three free throws to push Iowa’s lead to 74-70 heading to the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter was back and forth. Iowa briefly extended the lead to six points at 78-72. Nebraska then went on a big run and briefly took the lead at 79-78. Then it was Iowa’s turn for a run, and the Hawkeyes extended their lead back to 88-81. Nebraska got as close as four after that, but couldn’t get any closer, and Iowa held on for a big 95-86 road victory.
Clark led Iowa with 31 points, 12 assists, and 8 rebounds. Her three-point shot still isn’t where it needs to be (1/6 today), but she attacked the basket all day today, and her mid-range shooting is starting to appear again. Hopefully the mid-range will eventually translate to more made threes.
McKenna Warnock had one of the best games of her career, scoring 23 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and going 7/9 from three-point range. Her scoring in the first half especially helped Iowa stay in the game. Monika Czinano had 20 points on 10/14 shooting, but grabbed just five rebounds in the game. Kate Martin was the final Hawkeye in double-figures with 12. A box score for the game is here.
Rebounding is Defense Too
Last year, Iowa’s defense on the initial shot of a possession was terrible. Opposing offenses were able to do basically whatever they wanted throughout most of a game. This year, the defensive effort on the initial shot has been better.
It might not have looked like it today, but coming into the game, Iowa’s defense was surrendering 15 points per game fewer than last season. The team’s defense on first shots in a possession is a big reason why.
But Iowa’s improvement on first shots has also shown a huge weakness, especially in the last couple games. That weakness is defensive rebounding. Today Nebraska shot just 40% from the field compared to 62% from Iowa. But the Huskers grabbed a staggering 23 offensive rebounds in the game. Those rebounds helped Nebraska stay in the game despite the huge shooting percentage discrepancy.
Part of Iowa’s rebounding issue was that Nebraska spread the floor and shot a ton of three-pointers. Misses on three-pointers tend to bounce long and be unpredictable. But Iowa still has to do a better job of boxing out Nebraska players, then flying to the ball once it comes off the rim. Too often today, Iowa players were watching the ball instead of boxing out a player, and it allowed Nebraska to run by them and grab boards.
Another issue is the 5 position. On most teams, the 5 is the best rebounder on the team. They are the tallest player and generally in the best position to get rebounds. On Iowa, that isn’t the case. Clark and Warnock are much better rebounders and consistently average more rebounds than Czinano. Simply put, Czinano has to do more on the glass. She needs to work harder to establish position and cleanup the missed shots that stay close to the basket. Five rebounds per game just isn’t enough, especially when an opponent attempts 83 shots.
Iowa’s Shooting Issues
There has been a lot of discussion about Iowa’s three-point shooting this year. Coming into today’s game, the Hawks were shooting more than 10% worse than their three-point shooting average from last year. Many have wondered if moving the three-point line back has caused Iowa’s problems. Or the long Covid pauses.
I think the actual answer is simpler: Caitlin Clark’s shooting drought has caused most of the team’s issues.
Coming into today, virtually every Hawkeye was below their three-point percentage from last year. But for most of them, the percentage was relatively close. If Tomi Taiwo had madeone1 more three in the shots she had taken coming into the game, she would have been at last year’s average. Warnock only needed to hit two more to be at last year’s average. For Gabbie Marshall, that number was three.
Warnock’s big shooting helps to show that. With her performance today, she will likely be at or above last year’s shooting percentage from three.
Clark, meanwhile, was shooting 16% wore than last year’s average, and went just 1/6 from three-point range in today’s game. I can’t really explain what Clark’s issues are. She seems to mostly be taking good three-point attempts in the last month. She makes those shots in practice. But for whatever reason, they aren’t falling.
At some point, though, those shots will almost certainly fall. And when they do, Iowa’s shooting issues will be a thing of the past.
Iowa returns to action this Thursday, January 13th at 6 PM CT on the road at Purdue. The game will be streamed on BTN+.
The Boilermakers are 10-4 on the season and 1-2 in conference play, not including today’s result. They have wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech, but otherwise didn’t play a particularly difficult non-conference schedule.