SEATTLE -- Iowa guard Caitlin Clark knew she hadn't played her best 20 minutes of basketball to start Friday night's Sweet 16 matchup against No. 6 seed Colorado. The national player of the year contender said she felt rushed offensively, even a little frantic, which helped allow the Buffaloes to sneak ahead 40-39 at the break.
But then Clark -- as she's so often done, her junior year more than ever -- took over.
Clark had seven points and two assists to spur a 13-0 third-quarter run that for all intents and purposes was the difference in the game, helping the Hawkeyes to an 87-77 victory that put them in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2019.
No. 2 seed Iowa will face No. 5 Louisville on Sunday in the Seattle 4 regional final.
After a relatively quiet first half (13 points, three assists, three turnovers), Clark finished with 31 points and eight assists. It was her 29th game this season with 30 points and five assists, nearly double the next closest Division I player over the last 20 seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information. It was also Clark's sixth career NCAA tournament game scoring or assisting on 50% of her team's points -- more than double the next closest player across the past three tournaments. She finished one dime shy of becoming the first player in D-I history with 900 points and 300 assists in a single season.
Iowa's third-quarter offensive surge came, uncoincidentally, when it played its best defense. It finally slowed Colorado's Frida Formann (19 of team-high 21 points in the first half) and achieved better control on the glass, allowing it to push in transition.
"When we got in the second half, I thought we calmed down quite a bit, got stops," Clark said. "I think just buying into your teammates -- I don't think I shot the ball for quite a few possessions to start the second half, and then got an easy layup ... it's always nice to see the ball go through the hoop, and then obviously some assists to get my teammates open. That just opens everything up for everybody else."
Added Colorado coach JR Payne of the third quarter, when his team was outscored 25-13: "I thought they got out in transition in the third quarter ... tried a timeout or two to stop it, but in the end, they're just really good."
Clark attributed her second-half surge in part to her ability to stay mentally tough, something she's worked on especially over the last year and that has become particularly critical with the Hawkeyes facing so many physical defenses over the last few weeks.
"Understanding everything's not going to go your way [is important]," Clark said. "You've got to win, what, four games to get to Dallas [for the Final Four]? You're not going to shoot incredible for four games. That's an unrealistic expectation. So just accepting that and coming in with the mindset that, teams are going to hold you, teams are going to be physical with you, and you've just got to play through it. I think buying into the four people that are on the court with me at the same time and knowing that they have my back has been really, really good for me."
Three other Hawkeyes finished in double figures: Kate Martin (16 points), Monika Czinano (15) and McKenna Warnock (12).
Iowa is hoping to return to the Final Four for the first time since 1993, when the legendary C. Vivian Stringer was coach.
"I think any time you get to play basketball for this long it's really special," said Czinano, who used her free COVID year to return to Iowa City. "None of us want this to end. We're such a family here that as long as we can be together, we're going to try to be together. So it's super special. I know our team, every single person, deserves this, has put in the work for it, so we're just really excited to still be playing basketball right now."