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As the 'most exciting player in college basketball,' Caitlin Clark passes first test at NCAAs

John Harris
American-Statesman Correspondent
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark drives past Central Michigan guard Micaela Kelly during the Hawkeyes' 87-72 win in the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome on Sunday. The do-it-all freshman had 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the victory.

SAN ANTONIO — Iowa freshman phenom Caitlin Clark was in excellent position to pad her scoring total Sunday in a first-round NCAA Tournament game against Central Michigan when — surprise, surprise — she suddenly flicked a behind-the-back pass at warp speed through a thicket of defenders to teammate Monika Czinano, who sank the layup and converted a three-point play that defined why WNBA legend Sue Bird called Clark "the most exciting player in college basketball right now."

The play was as exciting as it was rooted in fundamentals, courtesy of the multi-faceted point guard with the dazzling floor game who became only the second freshman to lead the nation in scoring.

"It makes me a little star-struck," Clark said about Bird praising her game. "She was one of those players I grew up watching, patterning my game after. To have somebody like her say that about my game means a lot."

Clark delivered as she has done all season, scoring 23 points, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing-out seven assists in Iowa's 87-72 win over the Chippewas at the Alamodome and sending the No. 5 seed Hawkeyes into the Round of 32 against Kentucky.

Not bad for a player in her NCAA Tournament debut.

"I wasn't that nervous. Maybe a little nervous before tipoff," said Clark, who has scored 30 or more points 11 times this season. "More than anything, I was just anxious and excited to play. It was a dream come true to be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

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Now about that fancy behind-the-back pass to Czinano. What made you do it?

"It was a double-screen for me," Clark said. "Monika was standing in the box. I'm like, 'I'm just going to throw it.' She was ready. She caught it and got the and-one which made it that much better.

"My teammates always seem to be in the right spot at the right time. They know that they can get the ball whenever. Maybe I won't even be looking at them. Our offense sets up a lot of situations that put me in a good position to pass to my teammates."

An elite scorer who entered the tournament averaging a nation-leading 26.7 points a game, Clark's unselfish mindset as a ball distributor was on display as four Hawkeyes reached double figures. Czinano matched Clark's team-high 23 points, while Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock added 13 points apiece.

"I loved the balanced scoring," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "Everybody knows about Caitlin and Monika, but when we have those extra (contributors) that makes us so much more dangerous."

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Celebrated as a second-team All-American, Clark understands she could be on a collision course to meet fellow freshman standout Paige Bueckers if Iowa and top-seed Connecticut advance to the Sweet 16. Bueckers was a first-team All-American.

"I'm rooting for Paige. I'm a big fan," Clark said. "I watch a lot of her games. She's a great player."