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Clark overcomes rough start, lifts Iowa over Nebraska in OT for Big Ten title

Most of the sellout crowd that filled Target Center for Sunday's game came expecting a four quarters-long Caitlin Clark coronation.

Ultimately, that coronation came. But not until a back-and-forth, gritty meatgrinder that took an extra five minutes to decide was over: Iowa 94, Nebraska 89 in overtime.

The championship game of the Big Ten women's basketball tournament featured gritty defense, great execution on both sides, traded runs and 16 lead changes.

But, finally, it came down to Clark: Her stepback three-pointer with 51.3 seconds left in OT put the Hawkeyes, who were down eight with 2:38 remaining in regulation, up by two. Then she stole the ball, was fouled and made both free throws with 37 seconds left.

Second-seeded Iowa (29-4) won its third consecutive conference tournament championship in its fourth title-game appearance in a row. Clark was selected the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for a third time.

"We just found a way to win," said Clark, who finished with 34 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds.

She had a rough opening two quarters, when she was 2-for-13 from the field and scored only four points. She called it her worst half. But she scored 24 points in the second half and another six in OT. From halftime on, she was 10-for-16 from the floor and scored 30 points.

"That speaks to the team that we have, the maturity that we have on this group," Clark said. "That's what I'm most proud of is we found a different way to win."

For Iowa, that meant Kate Martin's accuracy from three-point range and her defense; Gabbie Marshall's block late in overtime; and Hannah Stuelke's 25 points on 11-for-18 shooting with nine rebounds.

The Cornhuskers (22-11) countered with their own strong performances: Alexis Markowski had 23 points and 13 rebounds, Jaz Shelley 16 points and 13 assists, freshman Natalie Potts 21 points and nine rebounds. Nebraska, which was the tournament's No. 5 seed and was playing for a fourth consecutive day, had the highest point total of any team to lose in the final in 30 Big Ten tournaments.

"We really feel like we could have won that game,'' a disappointed Shelley said. "But we'll be good. It's going to sting a little bit. But this team is special.''

But Clark: Iowa was down 75-67 with 2:38 left in regulation after a 10-2 Huskers run that ended with Shelley hitting two free throws. Clark then hit a three. She passed to Stuelke for a layup, then Martin for a three. Then Clark drove for a basket with 29.3 seconds left to tie the score. Clark scored or assisted on every Hawkeyes bucket down the stretch.

BOXSCORE: Iowa 94, Nebraska 89 (OT)

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In overtime, Iowa scored the first five points, Nebraska the next seven. Logan Nissley put Nebraska up 87-86 with 1:07 left with a three-pointer, but then Clark responded with her step-back three, stole the ball, was fouled and made the sealing free throws.

By her own admission, a younger Clark might not have been able to shake off the slow starts she had in both a quarterfinal victory over Penn State on Friday and again Sunday.

"I don't think you win those [games] if you have freshman and sophomore Caitlin,'' Clark said. "I was never able to let it go and move on to the next. That was really something I always struggled with."

Clark said she reset her mind at halftime Sunday: "Clean slate, new game."

And the Hawkeyes likely secured a No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament field is announced next Sunday.

It was a gritty way to win. Iowa trailed at the half for just the third time this season but wound up winning its sixth conference tournament title.

"We fought hard tonight, and we had to," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "It's not very often we have fought from behind. This was our biggest deficit at halftime. We just tried to reset."

Ultimately, the coronation came, the MOP trophy was awarded, a few more pieces of the cut-down net were distributed. Clark has a few of those. Some back at her apartment, most at her parents' house.

"Got to keep it in a safe spot," she said. "It never gets old cutting any net. I feel like we're pretty good at that now."