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March Madness: Caitlin Clark, Iowa overcome slow start to advance past Holy Cross

Caitlin Clark and Iowa are advancing in the NCAA women's tournament, but they had to first overcome a slow start against No. 16 Holy Cross.

Clark recorded 27 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and a block by the time she checked out of the 91-65 win with a little over four minutes left. After turning in another impressive performance, the 22-year-old was candid about Iowa's room for improvement.

"I thought [Holy Cross] made a lot of shots, I thought they competed really well. Gotta give credit to them," Clark said on the broadcast after the game. "I don't know that we really played our best basketball. Obviously a little rust. I thought we could have just executed our offense a little better. They really compacted the paint, but I thought we responded really well. We always had an answer."

Holy Cross entered Saturday's matchup with all odds against it. Holy Cross beat UT-Martin in a play-in game Thursday night to land in the first round, placing it in the center of Caitlin Clark Mania. As a No. 1 seed, the Hawkeyes had the advantage of hosting in Iowa City, Iowa, where a sold-out crowd of almost 15,000 frenzied fans gathered to watch Clark. Even the young daughters of Holy Cross head coach Maureen Magarity were in attendance and rooting for the Iowa superstar. It was a far cry from Holy Cross' stadium in Massachusetts, which has only 3,536 seats.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) adjusts a headband during a timeout in the first half of a first-round college basketball game against Holy Cross in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark recorded a triple-double in Satuday's first-round college basketball game against Holy Cross in the NCAA Tournament. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Somehow, the Crusaders seemed to open with an edge, ending the first quarter down just 23-21.

They brought physicality immediately and forced nine turnovers in the first half, six of which were committed by Clark. She appeared to get hit in the face in the second quarter and officials deemed the foul to be excessive after a review. While she made both of her free throws, her visible frustration seemed to build from that point.

Clark ended the first half with 13 points. She converted on just two of her eight field-goal attempts, distributing the ball with seven assists. Walking off the court at halftime, she got into a heated exchange with an official. That encounter was preceded by Clark seemingly arguing with her father in the crowd. She angrily head-butted the basketball in a separate instance.

"I wish she wouldn't be frustrated," Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said during an interview on the court. "We love the assists. I mean, we want her to pass the ball. She's one of the best in the country. Let's showcase that today."

By the third quarter, the Hawkeyes seemed to find their footing, which carried through the rest of the game. Iowa was bolstered by senior guard Kate Martin's 15 points and 14 rebounds, as well as junior forward Addison O'Grady's 14 points off the bench.

The Hawkeyes ultimately completed a dominant victory without one of their top supporting players, Hannah Stuelke. The sophomore forward recorded two rebounds in 10 minutes before she was pulled out for the entire second half. "She didn’t feel well, not gonna use her if we didn’t have to," Bluder told ESPN's Holly Rowe postgame.

Iowa will be able to rest until Monday when it will face the winner of No. 8 West Virginia vs. No. 9 Princeton.