Yes, Caitlin Clark has been flirting with another triple-double, but Hannah Stuelke is Iowa’s X-Factor
Southeastern Louisiana entered the NCAA women’s tournament with experience against the best. The Lady Lions opened their season with a West Coast road trip that included Utah, a 2-seed in Greenville 2, and returned to their home state to play at LSU, a 3-seed in the same region.
“Each of them had a very important piece of the puzzle,” said Lions head coach Ayla Guzzardo. “But I’m being honest. We haven’t seen anything like Caitlin Clark before.”
The No. 15-seeded Lions quickly fell behind No. 2-seeded Iowa in the first round of the Seattle 4 Regional on Friday, ultimately eliminating the tournament 95-43 in a loss greater than Utah ( 37, their previous worst) and LSU (8). Clark scored 12 of the Hawkeyes’ first 15 points and flirted with a triple-double that would have been her fifth this season and her 11th overall.
The Iowa starters were substituted early in the fourth to cheers from another sell-out crowd at Carver Hawkeye Arena. The tickets sold out in 52 minutes and resold for twice the next highest round one price in Connecticut, according to ESPN. Iowa averaged 10,738 fans per game before the tournament, which ranks second in the nation and would set Wisconsin’s conference mark (10,455 in ’97-98).
Clark led all scorers with 26 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in 29 minutes. It was her second tournament game with at least 20 points and 10 assists, making her the only player with multiple points.
“What she can do with the ball is an advantage for her passing game,” said Guzzardo. “I think that’s where we almost got to [fans] on the touchline: ‘Oh, that was a great pass.’ … What she can do was just amazing.”
Iowa (27-6) relies heavily on Clark, a National Player of the Year contender from nearby West Des Moines, but will only go as far as her teammates play. Two of their three highest-scoring games this season have been losses, including 45 points against NC State in December.
Much of this supplemental production falls to Monika Czinano, her fifth-year sidekick in color, who completes the “law firm,” as the duo is known. In order for the Hawkeyes to get through the second round that upset them last season and pull off a Final Four run they only managed once in 1993, they’ll need their hometown X-factor, which resurfaced Friday.
Newly minted 6-foot-2 forward Hannah Stuelke, who grew up less than 30 miles from Iowa’s Arena, scored 13 points in 14 minutes on a 5-of-5 day, her fourth perfect game of the season and third with 5 out of 5. 5.
“If we let her play like that and she can come off the bench, it just gives us a whole different weapon for people to plan for,” Clark said. “I think Hannah played great tonight.”
Her score was only behind Clark and Czinano (22 points). They were the only three of 14 Hawkeyes to see the floor and score in double figures. The team was 60% from the ground, 40% from 3-point range, and assisted on 27 of 36 shots.
Addison O’Grady was also perfect (3-of-3) in six minutes off the bench and was singled out by Clark after the game. Freshman guard Taylor McCabe had one of the team’s eight 3s and earned a monster reaction from the crowd.
Stuelke, the first Iowa player since Melissa Dixon in 2013 to be named Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, is averaging 7 points and 4.2 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game. Her 61.1 percent field goal clip trails only Czinano in Iowa players who average more than two shots per game and ranks 28th in Division I. And her player efficiency rating (PER) of 25, 8 is only behind Clark (41) and Czinano (30.5).
“I think she’s a crowd pleaser because she’s fun to watch,” said Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder. “The way she gets up off the floor, the way she walks across the floor, it’s beautiful.”
In the team’s biggest games, she was clutch. Her other two perfect 5-of-5 games were a narrow loss to Indiana, a 1 seed in the tournament, and beating Maryland on February 2, also a 2 seed. She is a good substitute for Czinano and has developed a strong bond with Clark on the pitch that will be crucial to Iowa’s success next season when this long-time starting XI part ways upon graduation. The only thing she needs to improve is her free throw rate, which is 45.8%.
Stuelke’s five rebounds against Southeastern Louisiana got O’Grady off the bench for most, behind Czinano and McKenna Warnock’s eight each, and will be crucial in the second-round game against No. 10 Georgia. The Bulldogs upset an injury-plagued Florida State team earlier in the day to take on Iowa Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on ABC.
Georgia (22-11) keeps opponents at 58.3 points per game, the nation’s top 50, and is active on the boards with an offensive rebound rate of 37.3%. Iowa ranks fifth in defensive rebounds (76%) as opponents rush to come back lest they get burned by Clark’s full-court assists.
Stuelke has already found himself on the receiving end of some of them, working his way into hopefully Iowa’s Final Four puzzle.