Leistikow’s 5 thoughts off Iowa reaching Big Ten women’s title game: An MVP night for Gabbie Marshall

MINNEAPOLIS − When the Iowa women’s basketball team got buried on a Feb. 21 trip to Maryland, there were few positives to be taken from a forgettable night in College Park.

However, there was one key development in that 28-point loss: Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall connecting on 5-of-10 from 3-point range and netting 15 points − a breakout season high in what had been a season’s worth of shooting struggles for the senior guard from Cincinnati.

Safe to say, Marshall’s slump is a thing of the past. And this time against Maryland, with the stakes even higher, she had one of the most impactful games of her career.

Marshall canned seven 3-pointers – including the go-ahead stroke with 1 minute, 44 seconds remaining – to lift the second-seeded Hawkeyes to an 89-84 win against third-seeded Maryland in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament before 9,375 fans at the Target Center.

“Leaving Gabby all alone was not great for them,” Iowa star Caitlin Clark grinned after leading the Hawkeyes to their third straight Big Ten title game. The Hawkeyes face fourth-seeded Ohio State, which upset Indiana, at 4 p.m. Sunday on ESPN. “Proud of her for making that shot.”

Marshall finished with a season-high 21 points on 7-for-13 shooting from long range, each trey seemingly bigger than the last. The Target Center erupted when she buried a right-corner 3 to push Iowa’s lead to 76-68 deep into the fourth quarter. After Maryland rallied to tie at 79-79, Marshall’s seventh and final 3 was the biggest. Clark missed a 3 with the shot clock winding down, but McKenna Warnock knifed between two Terrapins to grab the offensive rebound. She flipped a pass to Marshall, who sized up the open 3 from the right of the key and swished it.

“She kept believing in herself. She kept working hard in that gym. I couldn’t be more proud of anybody,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “This team’s belief in this woman is unbelievable.”

Marshall has always been a 3-point ace for the Hawkeyes. She shot 37.4% as a freshman, 47.1% as a sophomore and 39.3% as a junior. But through 22 games this season, she was shooting at a 16-for-75 clip (21.3%) from 3. In the last nine games, she’s settled in and connected on 24-for-41 attempts from long range (58.3%), upping her season percentage to 34.5%.

She’s now hitting 3s in volume (including four in Friday’s win vs. Purdue), which is a huge development for the 25-6 Hawkeyes. Marshall is also one of Iowa’s best defenders and played a team-high 39:21. With her help, Iowa tied a tournament record with 15 3-pointers (on a tournament-record 40 attempts).

“When you struggle like I did in the beginning … I knew that I had to start making shots in order to open things up,” Marshall said. “I’m happy that I can do that for the team right now. I’m not worried about what I’m shooting from 3, but I’m happy to help the team in that way.”

Gabbie Marshall is heating up from 3 and she delivered in a big way Saturday with 7-for-13 accuracy from 3-point range.

A balanced score sheet shows how dangerous Iowa can be

With Maryland hounding Clark with a box-and-one defense over in College Park and again Saturday, it was imperative that the supporting cast come through for the Hawkeyes.

Even in Iowa’s 96-82 home win against Maryland on Feb. 2, three players − Clark, Monika Czinano and Hannah Stuelke − scored all but 13 points. In College Park in that 96-68 loss, Czinano went 2-for-5, Kate Martin 2-for-7 and Warnock 3-for-14.

Finally, the Hawkeyes got the well-rounded box score they desired against the Terrapins … and the type of stat lines you’d like to see the rest of the postseason so that opponents can’t key on Clark (22 points Saturday).

Warnock matched Marshall’s 21 points (18 in the second half, including 4-for-4 from the line in the final minute) and eight rebounds; Martin was on triple-double watch and finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in her latest big-game performance; and Czinano scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

The only downside Saturday? Iowa got no bench points. But Bluder mostly stuck with the starting five.

“You can take away me and Monika, but when the other three play like they did and we have other people coming off the bench and contributing, there’s only so much you can do,” Clark said. “We scored 89 points, and you’re basically selling out on two players.

“It’s something we’ve been working on in practice since we saw it when we went there, and some other teams have tried it, too. But I think our confidence level of what we have right now is really good. We’ll welcome any defense that any team wants to bring at us.”

Caitlin Clark is now 8-1 in Big Ten Tournament games

The sensational junior guard came to play in this one, as you would expect. She dropped in her first three 3-point attempts, including one from logo-distance range, and played to the raucous crowd as Iowa roared to a 21-9 start.

“You’ve got to credit Caitlin. She’s super motivated, that loss that they took at our place,” said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, who described this one as a road game. “When you’re a competitor, I thought she made a statement and set the tone, like all great players do.”

Clark finished with her 22 points and nine assists and, maybe most important, committed only two turnovers. She was tagged for 14 combined turnovers in the two previous meetings vs. the Terps.

After the game, a Maryland reporter asked Clark about reaching the Big Ten title game for the third straight year. She responded with four words.

“That’s all I know,” she said.

Martin, Marshall and even Bluder chuckled at the mic-drop response.

Clark, no surprise, is working her way toward some Big Ten Tournament history. With 61 assists in those nine tourney games, she needs just seven more to break the career mark held by Ohio State’s Samantha Prahalis (67 in 11 games from 2009 to ’12). Something to watch Sunday. Her 224 points are fourth in Big Ten Tournament history. She’ll need next year to break the mark of 265 by Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell. (Or will she?)

There was a scary moment involving Clark with about a minute to go in the first half. She was retreating on a fast break and took hard contact from Maryland star Diamond Miller (who enjoyed agitating the pro-Hawkeye crowd). A charge was called, and Clark writhed on the floor in pain. Turns out, she was just trying to catch her breath. The hard fall knocked the wind out of her.

She spent a brief period on the bench and returned to make sure Iowa held a 47-42 halftime lead.

“Diamond’s a really good player. You see her coming full steam right at you, that’s not an amazing sight,” Clark said with a smile. “Probably the first charge I’ve taken in my career. But it came at a good time. Coach Abby (Stamp) has got to buy me coffee for that.”

Diamond Miller charges into Caitlin Clark during the first half of Saturday's game.

A blown call could have been really costly

Iowa appeared to have the game in hand, up 85-81 with the ball at halfcourt and 35 seconds to go. While Martin looked to inbound the pass, Miller slapped the ball very clearly – in front of dozens of court-side reporters – but no official saw the infraction. That should have been a technical foul on Maryland. On the heels of that, Clark was called for an offensive foul while trying to get open – thus giving the ball over to Maryland, which quickly cut the gap to 85-84 on a Lavender Briggs 3-pointer with 25 seconds left.

“That should have been a technical,” Clark said, as Martin nodded in agreement. “I don’t know who the foul was on, me or (Marshall). I mean, I didn’t touch her. I don’t know what he saw. He called it from behind me. It’s a tough call at the end of the game. But I thought we responded really well, that’s all you can do. He’s not going to go back and change the call.”

After a clunky inbounds pass with the one-point lead, Warnock was clobbered going for the loose ball and canned both free throws for an 87-84 lead. Iowa played excellent defense and forced a tough 3-pointer with 8 seconds left by Abby Meyers. Warnock cemented the final margin with two more free throws.

Had the Hawkeyes lost this game, that missed technical foul would have been a top storyline. Thanks to Iowa’s resilient finish, it was a footnote.

Is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in play?

Bluder wasn’t really in the mood to discuss the potential of Iowa climbing the seed line with a potential victory against Ohio State, and understandably so.

“They’re smart, and they’re going to know what that really means (for seeding),” Bluder said, “but to them, playing for the championship is really, really important. And that’s first and foremost in our mind right now. We’re not thinking about NCAAs.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it.

On Saturday, ESPN bracket expert Charlie Creme – who has a fantastic track record with this stuff – had Iowa listed as a No. 2 seed in the same region as top-ranked South Carolina. Meantime, Creme had Indiana and Maryland slated as No. 1 seeds in their respective regions after Utah’s surprising quarterfinal loss to Washington State in the Pacific-12 Tournament on Friday. Creme dropped Utah to the top No. 2 seed, and on Saturday the second No. 2 seed (LSU) suffered a loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament.

This win against Maryland should also be enough to bump Iowa ahead of the Terrapins on the overall seed line. Iowa has won two of three against Maryland this season and owns a better NCAA NET ranking. And while second-ranked Indiana deserves to stay on the No. 1 line with just three losses, could the Hawkeyes propel their way to No. 1 as well? An argument might be possible, especially as Iowa added to its program record with a fifth win against an AP top-10 opponent, if the Hawkeyes beat the Buckeyes for a second time.

But even if Iowa sticks as a No. 2 seed, the hope should be that it has played its way out of the South Carolina region (with the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight scheduled in Greenville, S.C.). That would be an unfortunate draw at this point.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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