Caitlin Clark’s precision passing carries Iowa to Elite Eight: ‘She loves to be Mahomes’

Caitlin Clark’s precision passing carries Iowa to Elite Eight: ‘She loves to be Mahomes’

ALBANY, N.Y. — Caitlin Clark’s performance Saturday evening reminded Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen of one of her star guard’s favorite athletes. “Our little quarterback in Caitlin,” Jensen said. “She loves to be Mahomes.”

The Kansas City Chiefs signal caller was an apt comparison as Clark located her teammates streaking upcourt, and when necessary, finding them for a basket. Like Patrick Mahomes, she throws them open, as well. She sees space other mortals often don’t. “She’s got all those receivers,” Jensen added.

The main Iowa receivers against Colorado were Hannah Stuelke, Sydney Affolter and Kate Martin. On countless occasions during the Sweet 16 contest, one (or multiple Hawkeyes) bolted upcourt alongside, or ahead of, Clark. They were the beneficiaries of assist after assist. (Martin added in jest, referring to the Chiefs tight end: “Sure, I’m Travis Kelce. I’m dating Taylor Swift.”)

Clark had 15 dimes, tying a season high, and she moved into third all time in women’s NCAA Division I assists, passing former Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot.

From the opening tip of her 29-point performance, Clark controlled the action. She finished with only two turnovers in No. 1 seed Iowa’s 89-68 victory over No. 5 seed Colorado. (She averages 4.9 and suffered 6 against West Virginia in the second round.) Her Sweet 16 assist-to-turnover ratio was her best mark since Jan. 31, although the stakes of Saturday’s action were far higher than for a regular-season road game at Northwestern. The Hawkeyes advanced to face LSU in Monday’s Elite Eight in a rematch of last season’s national championship game.

Against the Buffaloes, all of the Hawkeyes starters scored in double figures largely because of Clark’s selflessness. She even got to watch the final 99 seconds from the bench because of her efficiency. “I thought it was a really complete game,” Jensen said. “And that’s probably my favorite part of today.”

Coach Lisa Bluder admitted she was nervous heading into the Sweet 16 rematch. The Hawkeyes had trailed by a point at halftime in last year’s Sweet 16 meeting against the Buffaloes, and Colorado had improved significantly since then. History never came close to repeating itself, however. Colorado’s largest lead — 1-0 off a free throw— came just 11 seconds into the game, and the Hawkeyes led for more than 39 minutes.

Stuelke and Affolter, two of Iowa’s starters, played only five combined minutes last March. Since then, Affolter has grown into a favorite Clark target, progressing from a freshman reserve who appeared in only 19 games to sliding into the first five as guard Molly Davis recovers from a late-season injury. “There’s some tough passes to catch for sure, but she trusts us and that’s our game,” said Affolter, a 5-foot-11 junior guard. “We love to run and we love to push it in transition.”

She was on the receiving end of Bluder’s favorite Clark assist of the night. With 9:18 to play in the second quarter, Clark threw a pinpoint transition bounce pass to Affolter, who was dashing up the right sideline. Affolter caught the ball in stride and finished a contested layup while getting fouled. “Pretty sweet,” Bluder said.

Stories about Clark’s accuracy have become part of her legend over her four years in Iowa City. During last season’s tournament, Clark discussed clocking center Monika Czinano in the head multiple times with passes, especially in practice when she’s more inclined to “try a few things.” But Clark proudly asserted that she had never broken anyone’s nose. Martin said then she wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had sprained a finger given the velocity of Clark’s passes. She had been spared.

In each of her four seasons, Clark has always been among the country’s best passers, including at the top this season with 8.8 assists per game. She has never averaged fewer than 7 assists per game in a season and has been in either the 99th or 100th percentile nationally in assist percentage, according to CBB Analytics, a metric tracking the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted on. This season, Clark set a career high (50 percent) in that category.

That willingness to find others is why she’s so much more than the best bucket-getter women’s college basketball has ever had.

“It’s one thing to guard a great scorer, it’s another thing to guard the leading assist-getter in America, as well,” Colorado coach JR Payne said. “That’s what I think makes her so deadly is not just the scoring. … If you can stunt that or stilt that a little bit, she’s going to find the person that’s open.”

Buffaloes guard Jaylyn Sherrod opened the game guarding Clark and found herself trying to keep up with the Iowa star. “That, I would say, is the hard piece is that (Clark) got everybody else involved,” she said. “It just speaks to the type of player she is. She’s unselfish and she got everybody else going.”

Clark’s next matchup will also be a rematch. Monday night, the Hawkeyes will face LSU in an encore of last year’s national championship game. In that Iowa loss, Clark finished with 30 points and 8 assists. She also had six turnovers. Ball security will be critical if Iowa looks to advance.

Like her teammates, she is looking to avenge the defeat. If successful, she’ll find herself celebrating a second consecutive Final Four, similar to the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs quarterback to whom Jensen fittingly compares her.

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