March Madness: Caitlin Clark proves (again) she’s much more than an elite scorer with absurd Sweet 16 stat line

ALBANY, N.Y. — Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder couldn’t say it enough.

Fifteen assists and two turnovers.

It was part of the stat line of her departing senior point guard who spent the majority of the last six weeks in superstar status for how many points she could put on the board. Anyone around her, or in Iowa, or around a sold-out MVP Arena in Albany, would say the same thing at the mere mention of her name.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark reacts after a 3-pointer against the Colorado Buffaloes during the Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is more than a scoring machine. She’s a standout passer with exquisite court vision that was on display early in a 89-68 win over Colorado that clinched a berth in the Elite Eight. She added to another full line with 29 points, six rebounds, one steal and a block.

But it was that assist-to-turnover ratio that Bluder told Yahoo Sports she thinks was one of the best of Clark’s four-year career.

“She’s had a few too many turnovers lately and tonight she just did an unbelievable [job],” Bluder said. “You don’t get that way without taking risks. And she took some risks, it paid off for her.”

The win sets up a heavyweight battle between No. 1 seed Iowa and No. 3 seed LSU in the Albany 2 regional final on Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). It’s a rematch of the national title game won by LSU that set the viewership record with 9.9 million tuning into a Sunday matinee on ABC.

Iowa glides into the game fresh off a contest it put away for good in the third quarter and Clark said she wants to carry the momentum into Monday.

“More than anything I think [it’s] just building off this win today,” Clark said. “I think this was the first time in about three games we were able to put together what felt like a complete basketball game on both ends of the floor, whether it was in transition or on defense or really executing our offense.”

Iowa's Caitlin Clark walks with head coach Lisa Bluder during Saturday's win. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

She fed teammates for a 22-14 first-quarter lead and dished out her seventh assist of the game in the 11th minute. By the half, she had eight of the team’s 10 assists.

Clark became the second player since 2003 to have at least 25 points and 15 assists in an NCAA women’s tournament game, joining Courtney Vandersloot (2011), per College Basketball Reference.

They’ll need more of that type of stat line in the regional final. Bluder noted Iowa “got run out of the gym last year” in the title game against LSU and Kate Martin referred to the team’s result as “pretty bad.”

A start like the one against Colorado — and in sharp contrast to UCLA’s struggles from the floor in its loss to LSU in the day’s first game — would put the Hawkeyes in a good spot. Clark scored the first points against Colorado on a drive to the basket and quickly switched toward feeding teammates, largely sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke and junior guard Sydney Affolter.

Affolter stepped into the starting lineup at the start of the Big Ten tournament after guard Molly Davis injured her knee on senior day. Bluder said on Friday she thought Davis would be ready to go by now, but they don’t want to put her on the court if it’s unsafe. Davis remains inactive.

Affolter put away Clark’s full-court passes early and finished with 15 points, short of her career-high 18. As is her style, many of Clark’s feeds were spots most wouldn’t see or attempt.

“We get reps like that all the time in practice, and Caitlin is the best passer in college basketball,” Affolter said. “And that’s what we like to do, we like to get out and run, and she always finds us in transition.

“Those are some tough passes to catch for sure, but she trusts us, and that’s our game.”

After averaging 7.9 points in 23.6 minutes per game, Affolter reached double figures in five of six postseason games playing clutch minutes. (The lone miss was nine points in the first round of the NCAA tourney against Holy Cross.) She played just 1:51 in last year’s title game as Iowa rolled out the same starting lineup it had used all of Clark’s career.

“I’ve always known Sydney was an amazing player and a dog because I go against her every day in practice, and it’s not easy, let me tell you,” said fifth-year guard Martin, who scored 14 with nine rebounds and one assist.

In total, five players reached double digits. Stuelke scored an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double. Gabbie Marshall scored 14 while shooting 4-of-5, a positive sign for an Iowa team that made its run last year amid a hot shooting streak from the fifth-year senior.

The Colorado defense had to bite on Stuelke and Clark, who scored most of her points at the basket rather than beyond the arc. She was 3-of-11, draining back-to-back shots in the third that pushed the game out of reach.

Stuelke, Marshall, Affolter, Kylie Feuerbach and Taylor McCabe each notched an assist for a team-total 20 on 35 baskets.

“That’s kind of what you saw tonight is just a complete basketball game,” Marshall said. “Twenty assists, that’s Iowa basketball for you right there.”

Their attention quickly turns to LSU, the team that kept them from the program’s first national championship. It is Clark, Martin and Marshall’s last chance at lifting one. Clark had eight assists and six turnovers in the title game loss, a portion of her line that could be better.

“Anytime you have a chance to go up against somebody you lost to, it brings a little more energy,” Clark said.

Bluder said her team looks straight ahead and doesn’t listen to outside noise, which has been screaming about this potential matchup since the bracket went public on Selection Sunday. Clark spoke of focusing on going 1-0 every time she takes the court. There is no looking ahead a game.

That may be largely true for players and Bluder, but assistants are each assigned a potential opponent to scout weeks in advance. That’s why Iowa’s game plan to upset undefeated South Carolina in the 2023 Final Four was so sound.

After the superstars signed autographs and took photos with hordes of fans, they returned to the hotel. Bluder and the staff sat down with the scout to figure out a game plan.

Fifteen and two is in the rearview. Five players in double digits is the past. Twenty assists are highlights on someone’s social media feed. They need to find a way to do it again or there will be no new basketball memories and performances to create.

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