There were whispers in Evanston about a brewing storm—the #3 Iowa Hawkeyes were flocking to the city with none other than fourth-year guard Caitlin Clark at the head of its pack. Down every street and alley, in every hall and dormitory, the first gusts of angst could be felt from the fluttering wings mere miles away. Everyone was on high-alert. A migration of 7,039 people from the greater Chicago area and beyond trickled into Welsh-Ryan Arena to watch Northwestern women’s basketball (7-14, 2-8 B1G) face off against Iowa (20-2, 9-1 B1G) Wednesday night.
En route to Evanston, the Hawkeyes had torn down 12 Big Ten teams in their last 13 games. Overall, the team averaged 91 points per game with a 23.5 scoring margin. Iowa’s unparalleled performance under Coach Lisa Bluder has earned them top-ranked positions in both the NCAA and Big Ten conference standings. Rightly so, Iowa has been on everyone’s radar. But for Northwestern women’s basketball, Wednesday’s forecast was especially dire.
The ’Cats were still trying to resurface after enduring a wave of four consecutive losses to Big Ten foes: Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State and finally Indiana. During the losing streak, the team suffered a 41-point deficit in their last game, lowering their average scoring margin to -15.9. Still, one truth threw them a crucial lifeline: Clark has been denied double digits only once before in her career: at Northwestern on Jan. 9, 2021. The fate of the ’Cats was not yet sealed.
In fact, Northwestern was the first to strike. Barely 25 seconds into the first quarter, third-year forward Caileigh Walsh drained the opening three-pointer, drawing critical points on the board and a thunderous applause from the stadium. But the moment was short-lived. Just three minutes later, Caitlin Clark would hit her own lofty three-pointer to match Northwestern 5-5. The applause for Clark was more deafening than thunder. The balance was threatening to tilt in favor of Iowa.
Northwestern Coach Joe McKeown, emboldened by the team’s depth, sent in reinforcements. Third-year guard Melannie Daley, fresh off of the bench, brought the heat with her jump shots and vivacious physicality to close the gap. The persistent ’Cats, tenaciously clawing at the Hawkeyes’ heels, were soon revived by yet another three, this time from graduate guard Maggie Pina, tying Iowa 12-12 with just four minutes left on the clock. Though the first quarter closed on a 24-15 lead from Iowa, Northwestern seemed to be braving the storm.
Daley Drills 🏹 pic.twitter.com/bMwiAdIsjj— Northwestern Women’s Basketball (@nuwbball) February 1, 2024
The second quarter relied upon both Daley and third-year guard Hailey Weaver to spearhead the mission against Iowa. Unafraid to shoot, these two players threw their bodies on the line to draw fouls and tally six and five points respectively. Unfortunately, Iowa’s prominent offense had skilled shooters stationed all over the court. National Player of the Year candidate Clark may have been the most lethal player, sinking six shots in the ten-minute quarter. Still, her teammates: second-year forward Hannah Stuelke, third-year guard Sydney Affolter and fifth-year guard Gabbie Marshall formed a triple-threat that attacked the hoop on all other fronts.
“She’s a great player,” Northwestern fourth-year forward Paige Mott said after the game. “I feel like we guarded her really well on the three-point line, but then we just completely forgot that she could drive, she can make layups. There’s other stuff that she can do. When you take away one of the heads, another head comes up.”
With a guard like Clark as the visionary, able to thread the ball through tight channels and dispense it to her teammates, Iowa racked up 23 points against Northwestern’s 17, raising the score to 47-32 Iowa at the half. Thankfully, though, a 16-point deficit was shallow-enough water for Northwestern to hold on to hope. However, they would have to offer a valiant fight in the future if they wished to come up for air.
The surface was proving to be farther and farther out of reach for the ’Cats. The Hawkeyes crowded the paint, suffocating Northwestern's forwards and making it extremely difficult to secure easy layups. With four minutes left in the third quarter, Clark suffered a head collision during a layup. With her head pillowed on her palm in pain and the stadium solemnly silent, Clark exited the game for a brief substitute. The calm in the storm offered Northwestern the opportunity to take advantage of the Hawkeyes’ loss, but time would prove too brief. The 15-point gap entering the third quarter gradually expanded to 23 points after much battling by the ’Cats, sending Iowa ahead 73-50.
As with every storm, the greatest relief comes with clean up. Calm in their ways, in the fourth quarter, Northwestern capitalized on second-chances, snatching offensive and defensive rebounds to command possession. A total of eight ’Cats players, including first-year guard Casey Harter, second-year forward Alana Goodchild and first-year forward Crystal Wang, all worked to put points on the board. Collectively, these players totaled 24 points for their highest-grossing quarter of the entire game. Unfortunately, Iowa too reached a scoring high of 37 points at the close. The score was sealed at a 110-74 loss for Northwestern, a result that shocked and disappointed the team.
“It was a rare occurrence that’ll never happen again,” Mott said after the game.
But the ’Cats don’t want the entire experience of Wednesday night to be a rarity. The game marked the first time in Welsh-Ryan Arena history that a women’s basketball game sold out. Upon the final buzzer, Wednesday’s crowd spilled into the parking lots and neighboring streets, draining out of the stadium in the thousands. Their footsteps retreated into the night, the noise died down and the court settled back into silence. The debris of discarded beer cups and food containers memorialized the storm that had just passed. What happens when the Hawkeyes and Caitlin Clark return to their home nest, leaving Evanston in the dust? Does the stadium become quieted yet again for the women’s team?
To answer the question, Daley and Mott say, “We hope the attention just doesn’t go away from us.”
Feb. 4 will be the perfect time to bring this hope into fruition as the ’Cats suit up to contest against Wisconsin for yet another Big Ten home game at Welsh-Ryan Arena to celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
Thumbnail photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.