UConn women's basketball facing Iowa's Caitlin Clark in Phil Knight title game: 'Biggest challenge'

PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s been over 600 days since UConn women’s basketball last played against Iowa.

Yet, the No. 9 -ranked Hawkeyes’ will bring the same starting lineup that they used against the No. 3 Huskies in the 2021 Sweet 16 in Sunday’s Phil Knight Legacy championship (1 p.m.) at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.

Both teams advanced to the title game after defeating their first-round opponents (UConn beat Duke 78-50 and Iowa defeated Oregon State 73-59).

"It’s all the same players. They certainly know each other really well and they play really well together," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Saturday morning inside the team’s hotel lobby. "… They've got two terrific scorers that I don't know that you can go in the game and say, 'OK, we're going to limit this or limit that.' They touch the ball every single time down the floor, so it's a real challenge to try to figure out what can we do, what can we take away, if anything, or just make life difficult for them? … So, in that regard, it's probably the biggest challenge that we've had up to this point for our defense."

Sunday’s matchup will be UConn’s third top-10-ranked opponent within the last two weeks. Meanwhile, the game will be Iowa’s first against a top-25-ranked team so far this season.

Iowa returns all five starters from 2020-21 and is led by reigning Big Ten player of the Year Caitlin Clark. In the Hawkeyes’ game against the Beavers, the 6-foot point guard flirted with triple-double numbers as she finished with 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

"Caitlin's like a Paige (Bueckers) kind of player in that they're gonna get what they want no matter what," Auriemma said. "… She's unbelievably gifted with the ball. She has great vision. She can take the ball and go wherever she wants to go. She knows how to get the free throw line. She plays exceptionally well with her teammates. And she has tremendous freedom, she doesn't abuse it. She's a natural scorer."

The Huskies, on the other hand, look completely different than their 2021 squad.

Only three current UConn players played against the Hawkeyes two years ago: Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Aubrey Griffin (Nika Mühl sat out the Sweet 16 due to an ankle injury). Everyone else from that 2020-21 team has since transferred or graduated.

With Bueckers out for the year recovering from an offseason ACL injury, only Edwards and Griffin have recent experience facing the Hawkeyes.

The two forwards have stepped up immensely in UConn’s past two games since the team remains without 6-foot-5 Dorka Juhász (out with a broken thumb) for at least another game.

Edwards recorded her second-straight double-double (third on the season) against Duke in the first round of Phil Knight Legacy on Friday with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

"She should get a double-double every night," Auriemma said. "That's the bar and that's the standard and that's what she should be striving for every single night."

Griffin, who sat out all last season after receiving back surgery in January) has shown improvement both in her production on the court (she’s second on the team with 10 steals and 21 total rebounds) and in her self-confidence since she last played as a true sophomore. Auriemma said, back injury aside, he’s seen the biggest growth in Griffin’s consistency.

"I think (she’s) consistent, consistent approach and consistent effort, a little more confident in her game, more active," he said. "You know, she had spurts of that in the past. And I think now, it's more common in longer periods of time. She's certainly, she's different than anybody else on our team. So, she gives us an element that we can't get anywhere else."

A UConn win on Sunday will not only give the program its first regular-season tournament championship title since 2018 (UConn won the Paradise Jam title game that year over Purdue) but put the team in solid momentum as it begins Big East play next Friday (vs Providence at 7 p.m. in Storrs).

Maggie.Vanoni@hearstmediact.com  @maggie_vanoni