Moira Joiner stood on the midcourt logo at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last month, making sure to stay within an arm’s length of Caitlin Clark as the clock ticked down. The Michigan State guard shadowed the nation’s leading scorer, denying the Iowa guard the ball before getting turned around for a split second. The tiny bit of space allowed Clark to catch a pass from a teammate with a second left and hit a game-winning, step-back three-pointer from the edge of that Hawkeyes logo even though Joiner recovered in time to get a hand in her face.
In a game this week, Northwestern blitzed Clark with a double team that nearly trapped her along the sideline near midcourt with the clock ticking down, but she whipped an overhand hook pass to teammate Hannah Stuelke for a layup.
They were similar situations against the clock, with the opponent employing different defensive approaches that pushed Clark near half court, and she still made the play each time. Welcome to the challenge of trying to guard the woman Michigan State Coach Robyn Fralick called “the most dynamic player in the history of college women’s basketball.”
“You guard her when she gets off the bus in the parking lot. You start there,” ESPN and Big Ten Network analyst Meghan McKeown said. “I’m doing the Michigan State game, [and] everybody in the gym knows the ball’s going to her. Everybody. And she still creates enough separation to get the shot off.”
Maryland is the next team that will try to slow Clark when it hosts No. 3 Iowa on Saturday night in the most anticipated game of the year at Xfinity Center — and it’s not coming at a good time for the Terrapins. Maryland is on a three-game losing streak, and its best defender and overall player, Shyanne Sellers, is day-to-day with a knee injury.
Clark leads the country with 32.1 points per game, more than six points better than Southern California’s JuJu Watkins, who ranks second. In 122 career games, Clark has been held to single digits just once — as a freshman on Jan. 9, 2021, at Northwestern. She has been held under 20 points just 15 times — not once this season. Against Northwestern this week, she became the No. 2 all-time scorer in the sport’s history behind Kelsey Plum, now a two-time WNBA champion with the Las Vegas Aces.
Knowing all of that, the Terps should have at least a modicum of confidence after some past success against Clark’s Hawkeyes. Two of her sub-20-point games have come against Maryland, and the Terps’ 96-68 victory last February was one of the best defensive efforts Clark has faced in her career. She was held to 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting with six turnovers as Maryland used a box-and-one defense to stifle her.
Maryland is 4-2 against Iowa with Clark on the floor, but this particular Maryland roster doesn’t have the same talent and athleticism that allowed the Terps to be so creative defensively last season.
“She’s even better than she was a year ago,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. “You’re not going to stop her. You’re not going to limit her. You just have to make her have to work for the points that she’s going to earn.”
The question becomes how to keep Clark close to 20 points instead of 35, which she has reached or surpassed 26 times in her career, including in each of her past three games.
Connecticut Sun Coach Stephanie White, who is calling Saturday’s nationally televised game for Fox, said it’s a pick-your-poison situation. Opponents can either let Clark “go crazy” and try to contain everyone else, or they can try to get the ball out of her hands with multiple defenders and live with open shots from her teammates. Additionally, those multiple defenders have to deploy in different ways because Clark’s high basketball IQ will allow her to read and adjust if she sees the same look over and over.
“The biggest thing is, you’ve got to commit to one of those things or the other,” White said. “And throughout the course of the game, you’ve got to give them a lot of different looks. But she’s improved so much in her reading and her ability to get her teammates really good shots and be more than just a scorer.”
ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck, who coached Purdue to the 1999 national championship, mentioned scenarios such as the Michigan State ending. If teams get the ball out of Clark’s hands, they cannot let her get it back. Peck said she would aggressively trap every ball screen. She referenced last season’s national championship game and credited former LSU guard Alexis Morris for sitting on Clark’s left hand and forcing her to go right — even if Clark did finish with 30 points and eight assists in the Hawkeyes’ 102-85 loss.
“Her dribble pull-up to the left is all but automatic,” Peck said. “So I say force her right and bring that help there. … You want to make her a passer.
“Make somebody else the leading scorer that doesn’t have the initials C.C.”
Iowa is the top-scoring team in the nation at 91.8 points per game, and Clark, predictably, thrives in transition. Her scoring ability is obvious because she can get to the rim or pull up for deep threes, but she also is a skilled distributor with the vision and feel to set up her teammates with long outlets or precision passes. Letting Clark and Iowa get up and down the floor quickly is a quick and easy way to get carved up. Peck stressed the need to make it a half-court game and try to limit the Hawkeyes’ possessions with intentional and patient offense.
“If you can physically slow her down and not allow her to get them going in transition,” McKeown said, “and that’s like cutting off her angles when she’s coming down the hill. Try to force her off balance as much as you can. Throw a body or two at her just to try to stunt her, to slow her down.
“You’re not going to stop her. But if you can throw some extra help at her, it at least allows everybody on your team to get into the right positioning so you can try to defend and help as best as possible.”
Peck added: “When she gets momentum, you’re at her mercy. … The key to defense is you’ve got to dictate.”
All of that is easier said than done. There’s another school of thought about being physical with Clark, but she’s stronger than she looks and few teams have a defender who has the requisite size, length, strength and quickness to try to bully her.
Clark has received just about every individual accolade a player can earn — Wooden Award, Naismith Award, Associated Press player of the year, all-American three times. She is 104 points away from being the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, and opponents are still trying to design ways to slow her down.
Maryland, which has had more success than most, gets another chance Saturday.