Caitlin Clark and Iowa's top-ranked offense to face West Virginia's turnover-hungry defense

West Virginia guards Lauren Fields (23) and Kyah Watson (32) defend against a shot by Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen during the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

By JOHN BOHNENKAMP Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — West Virginia coach Mark Kellogg is entertained watching superstar Caitlin Clark and Iowa’s offense, up to the point when he realizes his team is going to have to defend the Hawkeyes.

The eighth-seeded Mountaineers get that chance Monday night against top-seeded Iowa in the second round of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

“When they get going, they get clicking, it’s fun to watch,” Kellogg said Sunday. “Not to prepare for. But it is fun to watch.”

The Hawkeyes (30-4) lead the nation in scoring at 92.8 points per game and in 3-pointers at 11.3 per game. They are also third in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Combine that with the fact that this is almost the same team that made it to last season’s national championship game, and Kellogg knows the challenge his team faces.

“Those kids, they know what they’re doing,” Kellogg said. “They’re veteran. They have been here. (Iowa coach Lisa Bluder) has done a phenomenal job for many, many years here. So it’s a well-oiled machine. For us, I guess we have to try to get them to leak some oil some way and find a few things we can take advantage of.”

Iowa will be playing on its home court in the second round for the third consecutive season. The Hawkeyes lost to Creighton in 2022 and defeated Georgia last season.

“I think coming out with a strong start will be really important for us, but I think that goes for any game,” said Clark, who became Division I’s all-time leading scorer earlier this season and leads the nation in scoring at 31.8 points per game. “You want to come out and set the tone. Also, our group has played in quite a few March Madness games where we didn’t come out and set the tone, and we were able to take a breath and respond.”

The Hawkeyes opened the tournament with a 91-65 win over Holy Cross on Saturday, but Clark doesn’t expect similar margins going forward.

“I think it’s understanding we’re not going to win by 25 points,” Clark said. “That’s not what this is at this point. It’s going to come down to single possessions, and you have to execute possessions. You need to get (offensive rebounds). We need to not turn the ball over. Little things like that.”

West Virginia (25-7) is one of the nation’s best teams at forcing turnovers. The Mountaineers’ plus-8.75 turnover margin leads the nation. They are second nationally in steals per game at 13.8, and force 23.9 turnovers per game, third best in the country.

“It’s about possessions,” Bluder said. “If you turn the ball over, you’re in trouble. Possessions are so important. But if we control possessions, we’re the No. 1 team in the country in points per possession. So we have to do a good job on the boards. We have to do a good job valuing the ball.”

The Mountaineers play at a slower pace than the Hawkeyes.

“I think we’re really good defensively,” Kellogg said. “We just do it differently than a lot of people. A lot of people, I think, when you press, they think you play fast and just go score points, and that’s not really what we do. Like you saw (in Saturday’s 63-53 win over Princeton), we can grind out games if we need to. If we need to play a little bit faster, I think we have the capability to do that.”

It will be the final home game for Clark, sixth-year guard Kate Martin and fifth-year guard Gabbie Marshall, who have led the Hawkeyes to back-to-back 30-win seasons.

“Oh, geez, why did you say that?” Martin said when it was brought up in Sunday’s news conference.

Bluder said she’s not ready to say goodbye.

“I am not thinking about tomorrow being their last game,” Bluder said. “I can’t. If you start thinking about that and focusing on that, you’re not focusing on the task at hand. So that’s something I’ll think about after the game, but it’s not something that I really want to prepare myself for now.”


AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness