Caitlin Clark’s rough start to March Madness isn’t a bad thing
Caitlin Clark’s rough start to March Madness isn’t a bad thing

Kaitlin Clark, college basketball’s all-time leading scorer, was just 8 of 19 from the field against Holy Cross. She was obviously disappointed. Hawkeyes learned lessons that can help down the road.

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If Caitlin Clark and Iowa make it back to the Final Four, remember this matchup.

It’s easy to win when everything goes right. When college basketball’s all-time leading scorer drains buckets and hits logo 3s. When a top-seeded team is impervious to both rust and abandoning the 16-seed wildcard.

This wasn’t that type of game. Clark couldn’t get a bucket for most of the night, while early on the Hawkeye offense sputtered like an abandoned car in the dead of an Iowa winter. Hannah Stülke, Iowa’s second-leading scorer, was hit by inclement weather and played just 10 minutes.

Holy Cross, meanwhile, didn’t get the memo that the 16 seed should go quietly, trailing by just two points after the first quarter.

But Iowa is a veteran group that plans to take it a step further than last year, when it lost to LSU in the NCAA championship game. Games like these, misfortune like this set the foundation needed for deep games in March and April.

“I think the first quarter disappointed probably all of us. It’s a game you want to come out and dominate from the start because that’s what fuels your run,” Clark said.

“I was a little disappointed,” she added, “but I feel like that comes from knowing what it takes to be where we want to be.”

The way Iowa responded should give Clark and her teammates confidence that they do have what it takes to survive the inevitable tough times they’ll encounter over the next few weeks.

After that first quarter, they hit the gas and won by 26 points, 91-65, despite Clark and Kate Martin not playing nearly half of the fourth quarter.

Even though Clark was 8 of 19 from the floor, she still had 27 points. He also flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 10 assists and eight rebounds. And even though she wasn’t hitting, her teammates were. Three other players finished in double figures, led by Martin’s double-double of 15 points and 14 rebounds.

Gabbie Marshall — or Gabbie “Marchall,” as Martin called her, referring to her accuracy from 3-point range late last year — was at it again, going 3-of-7 from deep. And Addison O’Grady, who came off the bench because Stülke was sick, had a season-high 14 points – 10 above her average – and five rebounds.

“We have high expectations for ourselves, so we’re not very happy with any one quarter,” Martin said. “I’m proud of the way we responded in a lot of situations tonight.”

To win a title or even make it to the Final Four, you need talent. obviously. You also need some breaks.

But more than anything, you have to find ways to win when the game doesn’t come easily or your backs are against the wall. If you’re lucky, that’s what the early rounds in a tournament give you, stress tests to find your weaknesses and fixes for them.

Clark mentioned several times after the game that he needed to “smile more.” No female athlete should feel obligated to do this. We are told this enough in our daily lives.

But Clarke’s frustration was evident to all who watched the game, and the better, more experienced teams will take advantage of it if it happens again further into the tournament. Now she knows, or is reminded, that she needs to mask her emotions better.

Iowa hadn’t played since the Big Ten Tournament title game nearly two weeks ago, and it showed early on in the Hawkeyes’ anemic offense. But when they stepped up on defense in the second quarter — they held Holy Cross to nine points and harassed them on 1-of-12 shooting — the offense began to flow.

“That’s one of the best parts of this team. We’re always in the game no matter what the situation is,” Clark said. “I think that just speaks to our offensive firepower. When we can string brakes together, that’s when our attack really flourishes.

Another lesson to remember.

“I’m happy with that. I’m never going to complain about a 26-point win,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Obviously we were a little rusty in the first quarter, but I thought we picked up after that. Our 3-point defense was really good and that was key for us. We did a really good job on the boards. We got great paint points, took advantage of some of those things.

“So yeah, I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Tough games often reveal more about a team than easy outbursts. Clark and Iowa need to remember what they learned against Holy Cross. They can’t afford to take that class again.

Follow USA TODAY Sports Columnist Nancy Armer on social media @nrarmour.

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