It was supposed to be Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers — it was so much more

CLEVELAND – Hannah Stuelke stood tall inside against one of the best post players in the country.

Kate Martin took a shot to the nose, left the court to stop the bleeding, shoved tissues inside her nostrils and then came back to score one crucial basket after the next down the stretch.

Gabbie Marshall drew a game-deciding offensive foul after locking down Paige Bueckers all night.

Over and over again, a game billed as Caitlin Clark versus Paige Bueckers turned into something much different. Clark was not the leading scorer for Iowa; Bueckers was ineffective down the stretch. Neither one made the biggest play with the game on the line.

Is Caitlin Clark or Paige Bueckers college basketball's best player? What  the stats say - Yahoo Sports

Rather, virtually everyone on the Iowa roster stepped up — from defensive tenacity, to offensive boards, paint points and maybe the most crucial play of all — Marshall drawing the foul with 3.9 seconds left. The end result? An epic 71-69 comeback victory over UConn Friday night to punch a ticket to the national championship game against South Carolina.

“That’s how it’s been every single game the entire season,” Martin said. “We don’t win any of our games without every single person on this team. The media plays it up for what it has to be, for viewership and everything, but we don’t win that game without every single person on our bench, every single person in the game. I thought everybody did a great job of stepping up when they needed to.

“Caitlin and Paige are both great players and they deserve their flowers. They deserve their recognition, but everybody on UConn deserves the recognition and everyone on Iowa does too.”

Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers in for a battle of March Madness' biggest  stars

It became clear early on that the points would not come so easily for Clark, who struggled with her trademark shot. Rather than panic, her teammates just stepped up and did their jobs. Stuelke battled inside with Aaliyah Edwards, playing perhaps her most complete game of the season.

She scored a team-high 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting, her highest point total in an NCAA tournament game. Her previous high? Thirteen points. Afterward, teammates praised the way she played with confidence. Stuelke herself said, “I think from the jump I was being aggressive. I thought I prepared better for this game than I did for the last.”

“She played with an energy about herself [that] she really could go in there and dominate,” Clark said. “She goes toe-to-toe with Aaliyah Edwards, who in my mind is one of the best players in the country. It was physical with her. Guarded her well. Boxed her out. And she wasn’t afraid to take it at her either, I thought.

“When I started driving, they threw two people at me. They were going to make me give up the ball. And I think that’s one of the greatest ways our program has evolved over the course of me being here. I used to feel like I had to do everything. Now, I have so much trust in my teammates and my teammates have so much trust in me.”

While Stuelke went toe-to-toe with Edwards inside, Marshall drew the primary assignment on Bueckers. Marshall relishes every opportunity to be the defensive stopper for the Hawkeyes, even though it has meant less focus on scoring. Her teammates said what Marshall does may not necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but her effort against Bueckers was noticeable — stat sheet or not.

In the second half, as Iowa began its comeback, Marshall completely locked her down. Bueckers had four total field goals after the break — and only three points in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 total points on 7-of-17 shooting.

Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers Final Four stats projections: Points,  assists best bets for Iowa vs. UConn | Sporting News

It was Marshall who drew the crucial offensive (and controversial) foul on Edwards that helped secure the win — after determining UConn was going to try to get the ball to Bueckers, and deciding to stay attached to her hip.

“That one, we knew coming out of that timeout, we needed to get a huge stop,” Marshall said. “That one hit a little bit different because I knew we needed it so bad. I truly knew that they were going to try to get it to Paige. I didn’t know how it was gonna happen. But I just tried to stay on her hip. Glad I got the call.”

Asked how her performance on Bueckers ranked among her other defensive games, Marshall said, “We knew coming in that she was one of the best in our game and we needed to have a lot of attention on her. I was going to try to deny her the ball wherever she was, and even if we were in the zone we always had to know where she was.

“I always like to go against the best of the best. When you can defend Paige to the best of your ability like that it ranks up there. This was a fun one.”

Other teammates pointed out the job Sydney Affolter did, grabbing six offensive rebounds. Clark ended up scoring 21 points, but she did it on 7-of-18 shooting and only went 3-of-11 from 3-point range. Midway through the fourth quarter, Iowa built on a three-point lead with buckets from Stuelke, Martin and Marshall. Martin, in fact, scored six of the team’s final nine points.

“Kate was huge down the stretch,” Clark said. “Made big plays for us. And that’s the reason we won the game. It wasn’t just Caitlin, it wasn’t just Hannah, it was all five players on the court – came up and made big plays at really crucial times.”

Now, Iowa has one final game — hoping to learn from its national championship loss to LSU a year ago to try and write a different ending.

They know Clark will get top billing, the way she always does. But they also know it will take a total team effort. The way it did against UConn.

“That speaks to our culture,” Marshall said. “You have girls that come here and buy into their role. The biggest thing is to go out there and do your role to the best of your ability and you saw that tonight, whether it was scoring, rebounding, Sydney getting O-boards, Caitlin doing what she does, Kate coming up in clutch moments, me defending, everyone has their role and everyone did it to the best of their ability tonight.”

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