Caitlin Clark overcomes rare early struggles in Iowa win over Holy Cross

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The best show in college basketball went off script.

Caitlin Clark’s final NCAA Tournament began with a turnover.

It continued with four more before the first quarter concluded.

It featured the greatest scorer in Division I history missing nine of her first 11 shots.

It saw the superstar outworked by an aspiring Cinderella.

It saw the queen pushed around by 16th-seeded peasants, who hit Clark with hard shoulders and an elbow to the jaw and frustrated her with a parade of double-teaming and face-guarding.

Caitlin Clark (22) reacts to a call while playing Holy Cross in a first-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday, March 23, 2024 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

It saw Clark’s father, Brent, yell at her from the stands to end an angry diatribe about the latest injustice.

When the first quarter ended, Holy Cross trailed by two, leading to a few rows of purple-clad fans producing the only noise in sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Even with Clark’s early struggles, the fantasy soon died, as top-seeded Iowa ran away with a 91-65 first-round win.

The outcome of the monumental mismatch — Holy Cross was a 38.5-point underdog — was never in question.

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark dribbles as Holy Cross’ Simone Foreman defends. Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK / USA TODAY NETWORK

But there is doubt whether Iowa can escape this year’s toughest region and return to the national title game.

There is doubt whether Clark — who last year set the NCAA Tournament scoring record — can make her final dance as memorable.

With the blowout already in progress, Clark eventually exploited the undersized mid-major, finishing with 27 points (8 of 19 field goals), 10 assists and eight rebounds in her penultimate home game.

The Hawkeyes (30-4) held Holy Cross to 32 percent shooting from the field, while Clark’s senior sidekick, Kate Martin, contributed 15 points and 14 rebounds.

Clark’s final game in her home state will come Monday against the winner of No. 8 West Virginia/No. 9 Princeton.

During Clark’s sophomore season, second-seeded Iowa was upset in Iowa City in the Round of 32 by 10th-seeded Creighton.

“I know this is a team sport,” Clark said before the win. “I have four other people on the court with me at the same time and I can rely on them. I’m going to need them if we want to reach our goals in March. It can’t just be me. And they’ve been playing amazing basketball, too.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) attempts a basket against Holy Cross forward Janelle Allen (10) during an NCAA tournament first-round game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Lily Smith/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

After winning their third consecutive Big Ten Tournament title, the Hawkeyes showed rust in their first game in 13 days, as Holy Cross (21-13) led, 11-10, after the game’s first five minutes.

When Clark — who didn’t make her first field goal until 22 seconds remained in the first quarter — took a short breather, Iowa went on an 8-0 run and never trailed again, establishing an 18-point lead at halftime.

As Clark’s defensive intensity increased, she also found her shot, hitting a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter, before opening the fourth with three scoring drives.

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts with an official during the second quarter. Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

She was removed to a standing ovation with 4:49 remaining. 

After four years, Iowa City will soon witness the final show.  

“I understand we’re really only guaranteed one more game from here on out, but I think just going out there and having fun and approaching it like you always do, that’s what’s going to bring you success, and that’s what brought us success last year,” Clark said. “You can’t be too worried about when it’s going to end or how it’s going to end. You’ve just got to enjoy the moments and live in the moments and don’t let them pass you by.”

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