SAN ANTONIO -- It has been 714 days since the last women's NCAA tournament game, which returned with an opener featuring a player Sue Bird dubbed the country's "most exciting player," Iowa super freshman, Caitlin Clark.
Making her debut in the spacious Alamodome for the Hawkeyes, Clark was characteristically electric, scoring 23 points plus 7 rebounds and 7 assists in a first-round win over 12-seed Central Michigan, 87-72.
"I honestly wasn't that nervous," Clark said. "A little before tipoff, maybe a little nerves. But more than anything, I was just anxious and excited to play. I think it helped that we had the 11 a.m. game, so I didn't have to sit and wait around all day or watch anybody else play."
The comments from Bird earlier in the week were high praise for the freshman but didn't appear to add any additional pressure to Clark's tournament debut. She was poised from tipoff, scoring or assisting on 27 of Iowa's 48 first half points.
"That makes me a little star-struck in a way," Clark said. "She's somebody I grew up watching, modeling my game after, so to have somebody like her say that about my game, it means a lot. And I think women that watch the women's basketball game appreciate the young players, appreciate the game more than anything, and they just love watching it. So it's special that she says that to me and I think that's one of the biggest compliments that you can receive."
Said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder: "I have to admit when Sue Bird says something like that, it gives me goose bumps too."
Clark plays with a distinguishing flash, cranking deep 3s and firing fancy passes, things she put on full display against CMU. As the Chippewas mounted a late comeback, Clark's scoring and passing snuffed it out. With two minutes left, Clark split a pick-and-roll trap, hit two low dribbles and her eyes flashed to the weakside corner where Gabbie Marshall was flaring out for a 3. That's not where the ball went, though, as Clark wrapped it around her back, snapping a no-look pass to Monika Czinano for a layup.
"It doesn't surprise me when Caitlin does those types of things, because we see it in practice," Bluder said. "Obviously I like them to make the safe pass in a tight game, but man, that's exciting. So I love it. That's who she is and I'm going to let her shine."
As a five-star recruit, Clark emerged as one of the top players in Division I, leading the nation in scoring at 26.7 points per game. She was often compared to UConn super freshman Paige Bueckers, with some recent controversy in Bueckers being named first-team All-American but not Clark.
"Either for me is a great honor. I'm just happy to be on that second team," Clark said. "More than anything I'm just focused on winning. I'm really good friends with Paige, I'm happy for her. She works hard. She's been a teammate of mine. I'm a big fan, I watch a lot of her games. She deserves it. She's a great player. I'm just happy and deserving of the second team and I'll be fine with that. More than anything, we're here in Texas and we're here to win games."
The fifth-seeded Hawkeyes play the fourth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday.