2021 NCAA Women’s Tournament: UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark square off in top freshmen showdown

When the NCAA Women’s Tournament pool was launched, outside of potential Final Four and national championship matchups, the only potential game looming was the biggest one in the upper right corner of the pool in the River Walk region. .

UConn, the 11-time national champion and AP’s No. 1 team heading into the tournament, was the No. 1 seed in that region. Then the No. 5 seed appeared: the Iowa Hawkeyes. That potential game in the regional semifinals between UConn and Iowa would pit two of the best players in the country, who are also freshmen, against each other in UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

With the Huskies and Hawkeyes advancing out of the second round, the long-awaited showdown is scheduled for saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ABC.

Bueckers and Clark are certainly no strangers, having seen each other on the AAU circuit since high school. Nor are they strangers to winning.

Bueckers, a native of Hopkins, Minnesota, attended Hopkins High School, where she played five years on the varsity basketball team and was also named Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. She was the number one recruit in the country, according to ESPN, and helped lead her team to a perfect 30-0 record and a state championship game that was ultimately canceled due to COVID-19. Bueckers is also used to winning on the world stage, where she won multiple gold medals as a member of Team USA.

While Bueckers was the nation’s top-ranked recruit in the 2020 class, Clark was not far behind. The No. 4 ranked recruit in her class is a native of West Des Moines, Iowa, and played at Dowling Catholic High School. Clark also had a long list of compliments of his own coming out of high school. She was named Gatorade Iowa Women’s Basketball Player of the Year after her junior season in addition to winning multiple state and all-conference recognitions, and Clark was also a teammate of Bueckers winning gold for Team USA and the Tournament of the FIBA ​​U19 World Cup 2019.

These two decorated basketball stars entered their freshman seasons with high expectations. Bueckers came in as point guard, whose ability to score, rebound, distribute, handle the ball and dictate the pace was only matched by his leadership skills and winning mentality.

Clark came to Iowa known for her scoring ability. He once scored 60 points in a high school game and also averaged just over 32 points per game in his junior year. His ability to shoot from anywhere on the court was virtually unmatched on the AAU circuit.

Would these two young players from another world live up to the hype?

In short, the answer is yes. They are now at the center of the universe of women’s college basketball.

Sue Bird, a UConn legend and current member of the reigning WNBA champion Seattle Storm, is very impressed with these two young players.

“Paige Bueckers is the best player in college, but Caitlin Clark is the most exciting player in college,” Bird said at the ESPN daily podcast.

Clark has averaged 26.7 points per game this season while hitting 103 3-pointers and shooting 41% from beyond the 3-point line. It is also practically automatic from the free throw line, shooting 86%. Clark has really surprised many with her offensive versatility and her ability to create for others and distribute as a passer, as she has a 7.1 apg average, with an assist / loss ratio of 1.48. Clark has become a triple-double threat every time he enters the court.

Bueckers has always been a triple-double threat, which is one of the things that made him so uniquely special as a high school prospect. Bueckers, who averages 19.9 points per game, 4.7 rpg and 6.0 points per game, is also shooting 47% from 3-point line, has 62 steals on the season and an assist ratio. / loss of 2.37.

Awards and recognition continue to accumulate for both players, and Bueckers was named a first-team AP All-American, Big East Freshman and Player of the Year, while also being named a finalist for the Naismith Award. While Bueckers has actually beaten Clark for a few awards, there has been no lack of recognition for the Iowa sniper.

While these two excellent players will meet on Saturday, it is about much more than just two players. UConn is looking for another Final Four, while Iowa is looking to make it to the first. It’s not about personal praise either.

The importance of this game is not lost on Clark and has nothing to do with individual honors.

“I don’t think Paige and I really care who wins the Freshman of the Year award,” Clark said.

For these two great players, it’s about winning.

For rival coaches in this game, it really won’t come down to stopping the opponent’s best player, it will come down to containing them, so which team has the advantage?

On paper, it looks like this game can be very difficult for the Hawkeyes to win and the reason is simple: their defense. While they are No. 2 in the country in offensive scoring, big thanks to Clark, they rank last in the country to score defensively at 336. The Huskies are elite on both ends of the court as they are the number 4 in scoring offense and No. 2 in scoring defense this season. Some may target the conferences because of the disparity, but both teams have played five games against opponents in the top 25 in scoring offense this season.

While Iowa’s defensive numbers haven’t been good this season, they’re playing better lately. They have kept opponents below 75 points in six of their last seven games, and the only team that exceeded 75 points has the best scoring offense in the country in Maryland.

In contrast, UConn has only given up more than 75 points once this season and that was in a close loss at Arkansas on Jan. 28.

For UConn to win this game, they don’t have to do anything different on defense. The Huskies have some really fabulous perimeter defenders led by Christyn Williams, who will likely be tasked with protecting Clark, while Bueckers may see some time on her as well. If UConn can control paint and glass with Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards and limit the Iowa RPGs, who, led by Monika Czinano (19.5 ppg) and McKenna Warnock (11.8 ppg), are very talented, it can take a 40 or 50 point performance from Clark to advance the Hawkeyes. UConn has been excellent on both ends of the court all season and is likely to continue on Saturday.

For Iowa, Clark will need to have a great day. Big enough to draw more attention to it than will already exist, allowing players like Warnock, Czinano, and Gabbie Marshall to have great games, too. Clark can’t win this game on his own, but he can certainly put his team in position to win. Iowa is similar to Arkansas, prompting UConn attacks. They play at a fast pace, shoot a lot of 3s, and can score. Despite being poor on defense, they can and will outmatch you.

If Iowa scores 75 points or less, UConn should win. If the Hawkeyes go over 75, they put UConn in territory they rarely meet, and while the sample size is minimal, the Huskies are 0-1 when they give up 75 points or more, so that’s the point. landmark in this.

While both teams are really good and have multiple pros, it will be Bueckers and Clark headlining a game that is in the national spotlight. What was once a dream matchup for basketball fans is now a reality,

Do. No. I miss it.

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