Is there a way to slow Caitlin Clark in March Madness? Here’s how some have tried

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) stands on the court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Nebraska in the final of the Big Ten women's tournament Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) stands on the court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Nebraska in the final of the Big Ten women’s tournament Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Many have tried to slow down Caitlin Clark. Few have succeeded. The numbers bear that out.

Opposing coaches will try again in the NCAA Tournament to come up with schemes to defend Division I’s all-time leading scorer but know it’s hopeless to completely shut down the Iowa guard. The only question is how many points she will add to her record total of 3,771 as she winds up her career before heading to the WNBA.

“You can do everything right and not stop her. That’s the problem,” said Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie, whose team has faced Clark and the Hawkeyes three times over two seasons in nonconference games and could meet them again in the Sweet 16 next week.

Clark has scored at least 20 points in 118 of her 133 career games and at least 30 in 56. She is the only player in NCAA women’s basketball history to lead her conference in scoring and assists four consecutive seasons. Her 173 3-pointers this season are an NCAA record.

The goal for opponents, then, is to mitigate the damage the national leader in scoring and assists can do. Easier said than done.

“Anything you do,” Robyn Fralick of Big Ten rival Michigan State said, “she counters.”

Either Holy Cross or UT-Martin will face Iowa later this week. Though there’s no how-to manual for defending Clark, coaches offered thoughts on the subject in interviews with The Associated Press.

All pointed out what Clark observers have long known: she prefers to go to her left when she shoots her signature step-back 3-pointer and to her right when she drives to the basket. When she can’t get a shot or her path to the basket is blocked, she uses her superior court vision to find her teammates with precision passes. And she loves to make long passes in transition that can be converted into easy baskets. She leads the nation with 294 assists this year, as she does in triple-doubles (six).

Kansas State was effective against Clark in its 65-58 win in Iowa City on Nov. 16, though Clark scored 24 points. She was 9 of 32 overall and 2 of 16 on 3s and had just three assists.

Jaelyn Glenn and Zyanna Walker took turns defending her. Mittie emphasized picking her up early to discourage those long outlet passes. Another defender would take over if Clark got a head of steam or had an advantage against the player assigned to her. The Wildcats varied their coverages when she came off ball screens.

“We tried to mix up what we were doing enough that maybe you have her off a little bit,” Mittie said. “Going right, we would try to get under some screens so we could shut off that drive and not give as much help. Going left, we just tried to be as physical as we could and get in the shot line when she got separation.”

Indiana coach Teri Moren decided to go with a physical game plan against Clark when it won 86-69 in Bloomington on Feb. 22. Chloe Moore-McNeil, Sara Scalia and Lexus Bargesser were assigned to her, and the Hoosiers would switch out of man-to-man and use a triangle-and-two with two guards playing man and two forwards and the center playing zone.

“We knew she was going to get hers,” forward Mackenzie Holmes said, adding that the Hoosiers were OK with Clark scoring a lot of points as long as she was inefficient doing it.

The plan worked. Clark scored just four of her 24 points in the second half, when she was 2 of 13 overall and 0 for 7 on 3s. For the night, she was 8 of 26 and 3 of 16. The rest of the Hawkeyes were just 18 of 41 overall and 2 of 12 on 3s.

Clark acknowledged the Hoosiers’ defense bothered her.

“I think being physical, face-guarding me, throwing a lot of different people at me… yeah, just very physical,” Clark said. “They kind of pushed me off my spots, got me out a little deeper than I wanted to be.”

Nebraska gave up 31 points to Clark in its 82-79 win in Lincoln on Feb. 11. All her points came in the first three quarters. She was 0 for 6 in the fourth, 0 for 4 on 3s, as the Cornhuskers erased a 14-point deficit in the last 10 minutes.

The Huskers switched defenders playing Clark straight-up in the first half and mixed in a box-and-one for much of the second half with Kendall Moriarty the chaser on Clark.

Michigan State’s strategy was to do the best it could against Clark and zero in on the rest of the Hawkeyes, and it almost worked. The Spartans lost 76-73 in Iowa City on Jan. 2 when Clark made a long 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer.

Clark scored 40 points on a career-high 34 shot attempts. The rest of the Hawkeyes had 36 points on 33 attempts.

“When everybody’s scoring, that’s when their offense is incredibly explosive,” Fralick said. “We tried to do some things where we didn’t let the teammates get some easy baskets.”

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AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in East Lansing, Michigan, and Steve Megargee in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.

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

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