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Caitlin Clark's rough outing in the March Madness opener isn't a bad thing

Caitlin Clark's rough outing in the March Madness opener isn't a bad thing


Caitlin Clark, the all-time leading scorer in college basketball, was eighth out of 19 players on the court against Holy Cross. She was clearly frustrated. The Hawkeyes learned lessons that may help in the future.

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If Caitlin Clark and yeah Go back to the Final Four, remember this game.

It's easy to win when everything is going well. When college basketball's all-time leading scorer drains buckets and hits logo 3s. When the top-seeded team is impervious to rust and gives up 16 seeds.

It wasn't that kind of game. Clark couldn't procure a bucket for most of the night, while the Hawkeyes' offense sputtered early like a car left in the dead of an Iowa winter. Hannah Stulke, Iowa's second-leading scorer, was under the weather and played only 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, Holy Cross didn't get the memo that the 16-seed was supposed to quietly disappear, trailing by just two points after the first quarter.

But Iowa State is a veteran group that has plans to go one step further than it did last year, when it lost to LSU in the NCAA Championship game. It's games like this, and adversities like this, that lay the foundation for a deep run in March and April.

“I think the first quarter frustrated us all. This is a game you want to come out and dominate from the get-go because that's what fuels your career,” Clark said.

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

The way Iowa State has responded should give Clark and her teammates confidence that they have what it takes, and that they can survive the inevitable rough patches they will face over the next few weeks.

After that first quarter, they stepped on the gas and finished with a 26-point win, 91-65, despite Clark and Kate Martin not playing for nearly half of the fourth quarter.

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

Gabby Marshall — or Gabby “Marshall,” as Martin called her, in reference to her accuracy from 3-point range late last year — was at it again, going 3-of-7 from deep. Addison O'Grady, who came off the bench due to Stoelke's illness, scored a season-high 14 points — 10 above her average — and five rebounds.

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

To win a title, or even just get to the Final Four, you need talent. clearly. You also need a few breaks.

But more than anything else, you need to find ways to win when the game isn't easy or when you have your back. If you're lucky, that's what the first rounds of a tournament give you, stress tests to find your weak spots and fix them.

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Clarke mentioned several times after the game that she needed to “smile more.” No athletic woman should feel like she has to do this. We are told that this is enough in our daily lives.

But Clarke's frustration was clear to everyone who watched the match, and the better and more experienced teams will exploit that if it happens again deeper into the tournament. She now knows, or is reminded, that she needs to hide her feelings better.

Iowa State hasn't played since the Big Ten Tournament title game nearly two weeks ago, and it showed early in the Hawkeyes' weak offense. But when they stepped up their defense in the second quarter — holding Holy Cross to nine points and harassing them to 1-of-12 shooting — the offense started flowing.

“That's one of the best parts about this team. We're always in the game, no matter the situation,” Clark said. “I think that just speaks to our offensive firepower. When we're able to string the stops together, that's when our offense really flourishes.

Another lesson to remember.

“I'm happy with it. I'm never going to complain about a 26-point win,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Of course in the first quarter, we were a little bit sloppy but I thought we pulled through after that.” Our three-point defense was really good and that was key for us. We did a really good job on the board. We've got great paint spots, and we've taken advantage of some of that stuff.

“So yeah, I'm cautiously optimistic.”

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Difficult matches often reveal more about a team than easy upsets. Clark and Iowa need to remember what they learned against Holy Cross. They can't afford to take this class again.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armor on social media @nrarmour.