Sports Journalism Blog

By Madie Chandler | @madie_chandler

Sports Capital Journalism Program

CLEVELAND – The intense buildup for the national semifinal game featured Caitlin Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes and Paige Bueckers’ UConn Huskies. But when Iowa defeated UConn on Friday night, it was on the back of sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke, whose precise post play lifted the Hawkeyes to a 71-69 victory over the Huskies.

Iowa looks ahead to its matchup with South Carolina, a rematch of 2023’s Final Four semifinal game that knocked the Gamecocks out of the NCAA Tournament, and a date with Dawn Staley, one of college basketball’s finest coaches. The Hawkeyes (34-4) will give it a try against the undefeated Gamecocks on Sunday at 3 p.m. in the NCAA championship game.

Iowa’s victory was preserved by a controversial offensive foul called against the Huskies. The Hawkeyes led, 70-66, with just under two minutes left in the game when UConn’s Nika Muhl dropped in a 3-pointer from the left-side wing to bring the Huskies within one point of Iowa with 41 seconds to play.

The Huskies (33-6) then forced another Iowa turnover, guaranteeing possession of the basketball with nine seconds to score and a chance to play in a 12th national title game in program history.

The Huskies looked to free Bueckers for a final shot, but the play was whistled dead before Bueckers even took a dribble. UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards extended her elbow into Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall, prompting the illegal screen call that gave Iowa possession and solidified its win.

“Everybody can make a big deal about one single play but not one single play wins a basketball game or loses a basketball game,” Bueckers said.

Beuckers’ 40 minutes led UConn, and her 17 points tied Edwards.

“We put ourselves in position to win a game that we probably had no business even being in given the circumstances that we worked with,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

The Huskies clawed their way to Cleveland despite losing five key contributors to injury this season. Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme, Ayanna Patterson, Amari DeBerry, and Aubrey Griffin all watched this game from the bench.

UConn’s Muhl defended Clark, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, and held her to just six points in the first half. Clark made just three of her 11 shot attempts and cast six 3-point shots skyward, but none found the bottom of the net. Muhl would force Clark into her first NCAA Tournament game in which she didn’t make a 3-pointer in the first half.

“You saw the epitome of what Nika is,” Bueckers said. “A tenacious defender, [she] does everything this team needs her to do, controls the offense, plays with so much heart and energy, and plays with her whole soul.”

Muhl held Clark, a 32 point-per-game scorer, to 21 points on 38% shooting.

But with their leading scorer struggling – by Clark’s elite standard — the Hawkeyes adapted.

UConn’s defensive strategy forced Clark into double teams once her feet touched the paint, opening an opportunity for Stuelke to run the post and realize her potential as a scorer for Iowa. Stuelke’s 23 points led all scorers, and her 75% field goal percentage – also a game-high – lifted the Hawkeyes to a scrappy victory.

“I think Hannah’s tremendous,” Clark began. “I think it’s just the confidence and belief…tonight she played with an energy about herself. She really could go in there and dominate.”

Clark’s first-half struggles didn’t keep her off the stat sheet entirely – she dished out seven total assists, five to Stuelke – and collected nine rebounds. The late-game heroics of Kate Martin gave Iowa the jolt of energy it needed to round out the fourth quarter.

Martin, playing the entire fourth quarter with cotton in both sides of her nose after taking an elbow on the defensive end, connected on three of her four shots in the final 10 minutes of play.

“Kate Martin, what a warrior,” Iowa’s Lisa Bluder said. “She was not going to be denied in that fourth quarter…she is a warrior, she’s a leader, she’s the heart and soul of our team.”

Bluder’s Hawkeyes outscored UConn 45-37 in the second half after notching as few as 12 points in the second quarter. Iowa shot 42% from long range in that third quarter, its best mark of the contest.

“We came out really well in the third quarter,” Bluder said. “I thought our defense led to some good offense for us and it kind of got us rolling in that third quarter.”