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March Madness: Hawkeyes open NCAA Tournament with 87-72 win over Central Michigan


As the opening act of maybe the most anticipated NCAA women's basketball tournament ever, Iowa needed a minute to warm up and get rolling. The Hawkeyes' focus had to be sharp against a Central Michigan team that can erase leads in a hurry.

There were moments of concern for this young Iowa unit short on March Madness experience. But nothing too drastic. The No. 5 seed Hawkeyes emerged victorious in this clash of similar styles, out-shooting No. 12 seed Central Michigan en route to Sunday's 87-72 win at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Iowa (19-9) is off to the second round, where it will get No. 4 seed Kentucky on Tuesday. 

"Our team was just really excited to play today. Someone asked if there was nerves. There were no nerves," Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said. "It was truly excitement just to be able to be a part of this tournament, to be out here today and still playing in March."   

There were no secrets about how these teams do business. Put up points, drain treys all over and hope enough defense shows up to avoid a letdown. After a seesawing first quarter in which Central Michigan held its ground, Iowa hit the gas and never looked back. 

A 15-6 run to begin the second quarter gave the Hawkeyes their first bit of separation — enough cushion to withstand some sporadic Central Michigan pushes. Iowa had its first-half lead balloon to as many as 16 before settling for a 48-37 intermission advantage.

Buoyed by all-conference guard Micaela Kelly — who fought through three first-half fouls to maintain a consistent impact  — Central Michigan climbed within six on three different occasions in the third quarter. But that's all Iowa would allow. The Hawkeyes had things stabilized entering the fourth and remained ahead by double figures all the way through the final period.

"I think our defense was pretty good," guard Caitlin Clark said. "Obviously, they're a great team that can score the ball on offense. But we knew we'd be up for the challenge there. I think in the second half, we did a lot better on Kelly. She only had two points (in the fourth quarter), so that's definitely encouraging.

"She's a tremendous player, but they have multiple weapons, and their other players stepped up some. But we knew we had to lock down and get stops, especially there in the fourth quarter. That's exactly what we did."  

With all eyes on Iowa's freshman phenom, Clark didn't disappoint in her NCAA Tournament debut. The all-Big Ten guard poured in 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting, adding seven rebounds and seven assists. The Hawkeyes' offensive gem didn't wilt on the season's biggest stage. 

Offensive reinforcements came from several sources, both expected and surprising. Monika Czinano owned the paint with 23 points on 10-for-18 shooting. McKenna Warnock added a double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds), while Kate Martin provided the early spark. Eight of her 13 points came in the game's first six minutes. 

"Everybody knows about Caitlin and Monika and what they're going to do," Bluder said, “but when Kate Martin comes out and gets on a roll, watch out. And then McKenna has been able to do that for us at times. But today, I thought it was Kate who really got us going, and then Tomi (Taiwo) was a spark too.   

"Having those extra weapons is so important, so teams can't just focus on (Caitlin and Monika)." 

Kelly finished with 23 points and got double-digit assistance from Molly Davis (18 points), but Central Michigan never found its shooting groove. The Chippewas, which entered tied for third nationally in made 3-pointers, finished just 10-for-27 deep. Credit Iowa's defense for another timely performance.

Now the challenge grows exponentially. Up next is a Kentucky squad featuring SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard, who propelled the fourth-seeded Wildcats to a cruise-control win over Idaho State. Iowa will need another sharp performance on both sides of the ball.   

Sunday's outing should provide a fledgling Iowa group with confidence moving forward.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.