Keeler: CU Buffs on opportunity to end Caitlin Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes career: “We want to come in and ruin everyone’s day”. Caitlin Clark responded with an arrogant action that millions of fans applauded. |T

“It’d be hard to get into her head,” CU Buffs guard Tameiya Sadler said of Clark, the Iowa star she’ll help to defend in the Sweet 16. “But we’re going to try it.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark sits on the court before a second-round college basketball game against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 25, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

BOULDER — Caitlin Clark wears your heart on her sleeve. Her game is three-fifths Steph Curry, one-fifth Hermione Grainger, one-fifth John Cena. She’s LeBron with a ponytail, Taylor Swift with a better jumper, the smoke and the inevitable.

“It’d be hard to get into her head,” CU Buffs guard Tameiya Sadler told me Tuesday just before practice for the Sweet 16 at the Events Center. “But we’re going to try it.

“We’re going to keep going. We’re going to give her our best fight, for sure. Give her anything that we have to throw her off her game and get this one.”

Before we dive into Saturday’s Buffs-Iowa rematch in Albany, a quick bit of trivia on CU-vs.-Clark Part I, played last March in Seattle. Sadler was the only Buffs guard to play at least 21 minutes against the Hawkeyes during their Sweet 16 matchup and not pick up at least three or more fouls along the way.

Long story short: Iowa coaxed three Buffs starters into fouling out, outscored them 19-5 at the charity stripe, and ended CU’s season by rallying for an 87-77 victory.

Now this doesn’t make Sadler some expert on how to defend Clark, college basketball’s all-time scoring leader and the most popular NCAA hoops player on the planet. It just makes her less petrified than most mortals would be when running with an assassin who thinks 30 feet is a layup.

“Caitlin’s very emotional, so for us, it’s like, we can’t feed into her emotions that she’s going to play with,” Sadler continued. “Because she’s going to fall, she’s going to throw up her hands, she’s going to talk to the refs. But at the end of the day, we can’t focus on that. We have to focus on us.”

The focus, at least to 99.998% of the millions who’ll tune in to ABC for Saturday’s regional semifinal, will be on Clark, who’s already declared for the WNBA draft, and the Hawkeyes. CU? CU’s a speed bump. A bit player. The villains standing between America’s favorite shooter and America’s favorite Final Four narrative.

Sadler smiled at that last one. Wickedly. To heck with that. She wants to send Clark home.

“For sure. I feel like, going into the Kansas State game, we were like, ‘We want to come in and ruin everyone’s day,’” said Sadler, who did her part with 10 points, two assists, two rebounds and a steal in 19 minutes off the bench in a 13-point win over the fourth-seeded (and site host) ‘Cats this past Sunday.

“This is what we want to do. And so we like that underdog mentality because that’s when we play our best brand of basketball. So we were excited to be that villain.” 

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark calls for a foul after a shot in the first half of a second-round college basketball game against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 25, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) America loves its bad guys. That is, until those bad guys start costing the powers that be money.

As good as Clark has been for the game, she’s proven to be even better for business. She’s made Iowa women’s hoops appointment viewing — which makes the NCAA tourney appointment viewing as long as the Hawkeyes are still rocking the bracket. The Iowa-Holy Cross game in the first round reportedly averaged 3.23 million viewers on ABC, making it the most-watched pre-Final Four game in women’s tourney history. (And it crushed the old mark of 767,000 for UConn-Jackson State in 2022.)

Fast forward to this past Monday night in Iowa City, and West Virginia had the Hawks on the ropes. Only the Mountaineers shot five free throws … as a team. Iowa shot 30. The visitors were whistled for 27 fouls. The Hawkeyes got tagged with 11.

Fuzzy math, that. Curious.

“I think the biggest thing is actually a mental approach to that, because you’re not going to avoid the fouls, we all know that,” Buffs guard and former Valor star Kindyll Wetta offered Tuesday. “But how are you going to respond when you do get the foul call? Are you going to argue? Are you going to complain? Or are you just going to say, ‘OK, I need to focus, keep playing the game, and not let this bother me?’ So, I would say (it’s) mostly mental.”

With more eyeballs comes more scrutiny. Neutrals felt West Virginia got jobbed. And celebs such as Damian Lillard weren’t shy about going to social media to share their disgust.

“We’re just going to see how the refs are calling the game and go from there,” Sadler reasoned. “But we’re a defensive team, and so we pride ourselves on defense. And we’re going to go out there and be aggressive, no matter what.”

Alas, the zebras in Bracketville don’t usually love cutting the story’s villains a break down the stretch.

Well, unless you’re Duke.

“We’re going to be the ones to ruin their day, for sure,” Sadler continued. “Because I know people are not even counting on us to even win this game. We’re going to show them what CU basketball is about.”

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