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Throwback Tuesday: Looking back at how Northwestern women’s basketball shut down Caitlin Clark in 2021

No one slowed down the Iowa superstar these last few weeks, but the ‘Cats were able to once upon a time.

Iowa Athletics

Although Iowa guard and Naismith Player of the Year Caitlin Clark couldn’t lead the Hawkeyes past the LSU Tigers to secure the NCAA Women’s National Championship on Sunday, she just put on arguably the greatest individual March Madness run basketball has ever seen — among both the women’s and men’s tournaments.

Clark’s 30-point showing in the title game marked her 90th straight game reaching double figures in scoring. In fact, she’s scored 10 or more points in 99 out of the 100 games she’s played during her three seasons at Iowa.

The one exception, you might ask? Enter Jan. 9, 2021, when Northwestern held Clark to a career-low eight points on just 3-of-12 shooting in a 77-67 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Let’s set the scene. In Clark’s first year at the collegiate level, Iowa entered Evanston at 8-1 on the year. Its one loss came almost a month earlier on the road against No. 24 Michigan State. And even in that 86-82 defeat, Clark almost willed the Hawkeyes back from a 16-point halftime deficit with a 24-point second-half. It was the fifth game of her NCAA career — and her third 30-point game!

So, you can probably understand why BTN+, which broadcast the NU-Iowa game, ran with this graphic before the game started:

Northwestern wasn’t faring too badly, but it wasn’t flying at the heights the Hawkeyes were. The No. 22 ‘Cats started the season ranked at No. 17 after putting up a 26-4 season in 2019-20, which was cut short when the NCAA cancelled March Madness due to COVID-19. Led by a lethal backcourt duo in Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, Northwestern had won its first four games before falling to Nebraska and No. 16 Michigan. However, a 25-point blowout over Wisconsin on Jan. 6 gave NU some much-needed positive momentum as Big Ten play began to ramp up.

Both teams had a ton to prove, and it set the foundation for an exciting clash between Lisa Bluder’s red-hot, high-octane offense versus Joe McKeown’s Blizzard defense, which was led by Burton averaging an absurd 4.6 (!!) steals per game. The Wildcats were also playing for long-awaited bragging rights; as former Inside NU co-editor-in-chief Ben Chasen noted in his piece the day after the game, Iowa had gone 11-1 against NU in the teams’ last 12 meetings.

From the jump, the ‘Cats showed they would rather have the Hawkeyes pick up paint points than allow Clark to work in space and quickly open the floor up for her teammates. NU was able to instantly limit the guard in the first quarter, both on and off the ball. Take this sequence by the Backcourt Burglar, for example, where she shades Clark to her left towards help defense on the elbow, forcing a turnover and jumpstarting a transition three on the other end.

A few possessions later, with Iowa having generated its entire offense from finding center Monika Czinano for layups, Jordan Hamilton denies Clark on the wing, throwing Iowa’s offense into flux. You can even see the Iowa star motioning to Gabbie Marshall to take on Sydney Wood. The possession ends in another Hawkeyes turnover after they tried to force another pass inside.

Forcing Clark into congested areas and preventing her from finding any catch-and-shoot opportunities worked fairly well. She didn’t get on the board until almost seven minutes had passed in the first quarter — with the ‘Cats leading 19-12 after Czinano had scored Iowa’s first 10 points.

The Iowa sharpshooter had to work very hard for almost every open shot against Northwestern, and no possession encapsulates that more than Kaylah Rainey’s hounding full-court defense here.

Oh, also, this is an all-time awesome soundbite from McKeown:

Iowa kept picking up points in the paint, but it was Northwestern that was draining treys. The ‘Cats took advantage of Iowa’s 2-3 zone to go 4-of-9 from three-point land in the first half. However, after Burton picked up her second foul with about eight minutes to play in the second period, NU’s offense went on a long scoring drought. Iowa’s offense chipped away at a 26-18 deficit, and Caitlin Clark did Caitlin Clark things.

But really, this was Czinano’s night. She already had 16 points on a perfect 8-of-8 mark from the field before the second quarter was halfway over. The center would finish the game with 28 points (a career-high at that point) on 13-of-14 shooting, as well as 12 rebounds. She spearheaded an 11-0 Iowa run that gave the Hawkeyes the lead while Clark was resting.

However, Iowa couldn’t seize momentum for good late in the second quarter, when Clark checked back in and Czinano sat. Even when Clark was able to beat the first line of full-court pressure, she was met with a second defender before she even reached her three-point range (if you live under a rock and haven’t at least watched her play these last few weeks, that’s FAR). Most of her shots in the first half — even the ones she made — were off-balance. Still, NU went into the tunnel with the game tied 36-36 and no answer for Czinano.

While Bluder was able to draw up some adjustments for Clark to at least get into the paint with a full head of steam, Iowa’s shooting struggles allowed Northwestern’s defense to collapse inside without much of a consequence. It led to turnovers like this one:

Facing different defenders on almost every possession, Clark had to rely on working inside. Although Iowa shot well to begin the third quarter, and No. 22 got free for an easy layup, Wood did a great job of forcing her to shoot from tough angles around the edges of the paint.

Meanwhile, Hamilton was having herself a day on the other end, as she scored 17 of her team-high 19 points by the middle of the third period. Her three-point shooting, along with some acrobatic layups from Burton, catapulted Northwestern back into the driver’s seat. The ‘Cats gained a 62-50 edge at the end of the third quarter, with Clark having scored just seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.

The story mostly stayed the same in the fourth. Clark made an impact as a facilitator, but the ‘Cats kept her from shooting the Hawkeyes back into the game. Wood, in particular, did a tremendous job of forcing Clark to give up the ball. After the 8:55 mark, she was only able to muster up two free throw attempts (making one), while Northwestern slowed down its offense to burn some clock.

By the middle of the fourth quarter, it was clear that Clark had lost any rhythm she had gathered coming out of halftime; the broadcasters even noted it. As she tried to attack the basket, Clark lost her dribble on a behind-the-back move when Wood poked the ball from her. As a result, the Wildcats turned their attention to locking down the paint and securing rebounds down the stretch.

That’s exactly what they did, and they even forced Clark to foul out with just over a minute to go. Her final line: eight points, eight assists, 3-of-12 shooting from the field, 1-of-5 from three and four turnovers. To this day, it marks Clark’s worst shooting percentage against a Big Ten opponent. While she constantly set up Czinano beautifully and took defensive attention away, Iowa’s winning formula relied on making it rain threes. The Hawkeyes shot 40.8% from beyond the arc that year, which led Division I and is the best three-point percentage of any team in the past four seasons.

Against Northwestern, Iowa went 5-of-19 from deep. What also did Bluder’s team in was its 18 turnovers in comparison to NU’s eight. And because Clark couldn’t get out in transition, it was much more difficult for her to open up the floor early. Because the Blizzard was willing to let Czinano feast in the paint without compromising the disruption on the perimeter — as long as she didn’t score every possession and single-handedly win Iowa the game (which almost happened late in the first half) — Clark didn’t benefit from her teammate’s hot start as much as she could have.

Northwestern walked away with a 77-67 win and remained ranked. For a team that was slumping heading into the new year, NU’s defensive performance on Clark reminded the world that the Blizzard had not gone anywhere thanks to its depth.

“[Clark]’s a terrific player, and she’s off to a great start,” McKeown said after the game. “I thought we kept her in front of us, tried to frustrate her a little bit. When she’d beat one player, we always had someone there to jump in and switch out. We just kept running people at her, and I think that was the strategy.”

He also noted that it was a team effort, and praised Wood and Burton for not only taking on the tough assignment, but embracing it.

“They love playing defense,” the head coach said. “They came out of high school with this tremendous drive. They take it very personal who they’re guarding, and who the best players are on the other team.”

Northwestern would ride that momentum to a 5-1 stretch, featuring a double-digit victory over No. 11 Ohio State. It also included an 87-80 win over the Hawkeyes in a rematch 19 days later. Czinano exploded for 34 points and Clark dropped 23, but Northwestern’s heightened focus on preventing Iowa from winning on the perimeter was what made the difference. The ‘Hawks shot just 8-of-25 from three.

That run played a huge role in helping the Wildcats reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons. Their three-point defense was a staple in their Round of 64 win over No. 10-seed UCF, where they held the Knights to just 3-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc.

Holding Clark to eight points may not have been the singular turning point of Northwestern’s season, but it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. It re-established momentum for a Wildcat team that needed some after it was robbed of seeing how far it could take its dream-like 2019-20 season. The ‘Cats proved their defense hadn’t lost a step; in fact, it could limit one of the greatest players the NCAA has ever seen in a way no one else could.

Over two years later, looking at what Clark has accomplished on the court and how much she’s helped women’s basketball grow, Northwestern’s performance looks even more extraordinary.