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Why this NCAA Tournament is different for Caitlin Clark and Iowa

Caitlin Clark celebrates Iowa's second-round win over Georgia on Sunday. (Rebecca Gratz/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

SEATTLE — The Iowa Hawkeyes view their season in two segments: before the Maryland loss and after.

The 96-68 defeat to the Terrapins on Feb. 21 served as a not-so-gentle reminder of what can happen when the Hawkeyes don’t play the right way.

Now, the team is happy to address it, with candor and even humor. The game was a turning point and a big reason why they sat in Seattle on Thursday addressing the media ahead of their Sweet 16 matchup with Colorado on Friday night.

“I think it was honestly embarrassing what happened to us at Maryland and we all knew it,” fifth-year senior Monika Czinano said with a slight chuckle. “When you get 30-pieced on the road, it’s not fun.”

But the loss came at just the right time. With one regular-season game left, followed by the Big Ten tournament and March Madness right around the corner, the Hawkeyes needed that reminder. They went on to beat then-No. 2 Indiana and win the conference tournament. And when the NCAA Tournament began, they were finally able to put last year’s second-round loss to Creighton behind them as they advanced to the Sweet 16 with a win over Georgia.

But the Hawkeyes want more. They want to win a national championship. And to do that, they need everyone playing at a high level. Not just Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano. Everyone.

That’s what makes this Hawkeyes team different from last year’s squad. The supporting cast of players have elevated their games, going from bodies on the floor to legitimate scoring threats.

“They have all stepped up in big ways, and I think we all understand, too, that if we want to win two games here, we’re going to need everybody,” Clark said of the regional contests. “It can’t just be a couple people. It’s got to be all five players on the floor at one time.”

During the 2021-22 season, one that was cut short in the Round of 32, Clark and Czinano scored 57 percent of their team’s 84.2 points per game. This season, that number is down to 50 percent, and Iowa leads the NCAA with 87.5 points per game.

That 7 percent makes a difference.

Take the win over Georgia on Sunday as an example. Clark and Czinano had their usual stat lines, with 22 and 20 points, respectively. But McKenna Warnock also contributed 14 points, and Gabbie Marshall came up big with 15 points, all on 3-pointers to stretch the defense and open things up inside.

Iowa guard Kate Martin hugs Caitlin Clark after the Hawkeyes' win over Georgia. (Margaret Kispert/USA TODAY Sports)

“I think obviously people are going to focus on Monika and Caitlin, as they should,” Marshall said. “I think, really, it’s harder for teams to guard us when we have bigger roles and we know that. I think especially after that Maryland game at Maryland, we knew that we had to step up and we had to knock down shots.”

In other games this season, different Hawkeyes players have stepped up. Sometimes that player has been Kate Martin, who showed in a loss to UConn in November that she is capable of putting up big numbers. Other times, it’s been freshman Hannah Stuelke.

Stuelke’s season averages of 7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game earned her Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year honors.

The former Miss Iowa Basketball adds a new element to the Hawkeyes attack, with her ability to run the floor and create off the bounce. It’s a stark contrast to Czinano, who is a traditional post player. The dichotomy doesn’t allow defenses to get comfortable, as Iowa can change the way it runs offense depending on which big is in the game.

“Hannah having the ability to come in at the five just throws a type of offense at the defense that they’re probably not used to seeing,” Czinano said. “I’m such a traditional back-to-the-basket post. I never dribble really, if I can help it, and Hannah dribbles. She’s a dynamic player.”

Stuelke didn’t play against Georgia after turning her ankle in practice, but coach Lisa Bluder expects her to be available when the Hawkeyes play Colorado on Friday.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.