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Far from her best, Clark still leads Iowa over Penn State in Big Ten quarters

With 8 minutes and 39 seconds left in the game at Target Center on Friday night, after missing her first 11 three-point shots, Iowa megastar Catlin Clark rose up and hit from behind the arc.

The sold-out arena, made up mainly of Iowa fans, exploded. Clark, perhaps the best ever to play college women's basketball, played to the crowd, gesturing as if to say, "Finally."

Whether Clark would hit a three, by that point, was the only drama left.

Iowa beat Penn State 95-62 in a quarterfinal game of the Big Ten tournament. The game was over, basically, shortly after it began. Iowa was in cruise-control mode when Clark finally hit her first three. Iowa (27-4), with its eyes on a third straight conference tournament crown, with hopes of returning to the NCAA Final Four, served notice:

Even when Clark, at least relatively speaking, has an off night, Iowa can still be on. Like, right on. Like, neon-bright.

"It's funny," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "Caitlin has an off night. How many people can say it's an off night with 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists? But it's a good thing this happened tonight. It gives these guys great confidence. They know, even when Caitlin is having an off night, we can win."

Or, dominate.

Iowa started the game 10-0 without Clark taking a shot. They led 31-13 after a quarter and Clark was 0-for-3. Five Iowa players were in double figures. Three hit three or more three-pointers. Showing again that she saves the best for the back end of the season, Gabbie Marshall went 4-for-7 on threes and scored 15. Sydney Affolter made three of four threes and scored 18. Veteran Kate Martin (11 points, nine rebounds) nearly had a double-double. Taylor McCabe had 12.

Clark? She had a ball.

By her own admission, there were times earlier in her career that a difficult night from the field — Friday's came in large part because of defense played by Penn State's Leilani Kapinus (19 points) — might have gotten to her. Clark shot 5-for-19 from the floor, including 2-for-14 on threes — though the two threes gave her an NCAA Division I record (men's or women's) 164 this season.

But now she said she's able to take joy in the victory and celebrate her teammates.

"That's not a skill I've always had, that's for sure, both of those two would agree with that one," Clark said, gesturing to Bluder and Marshall. "That's something I developed over this year and, more, last year. Just to be able to let things go. The best part of it is I don't have to sit on it long. I get to come out and play basketball tomorrow."

Iowa will be hard to stop. Playing with purpose and an edge, they out-rebounded Penn State (19-12) 49-37 and had a 30-5 advantage on points off turnovers and a 30-9 edge in free-throw attempts.

Down by 18 after one quarter, the Nittany Lions started the second quarter strong, pulling within nine points on a three-point play by Ashley Owusu (18 points) with 4:14 left in the half. But, out of a timeout, Iowa scored the next 11 points.

Drama over.

"Give Iowa credit, they're a very deep program," Penn State coach Carolyn Kieger said. "Obviously, they were able to hit 15 threes even in an off shooting night for Caitlin. So what our plan was is to take Caitlin out of her rhythm and hope the role players stayed in check. And tonight they stepped up, and they stepped up in a big way."

Clark? Bluder said she couldn't remember her ever missing 11 straight threes. Clark joked about trolling the crowd after her first made three. You've got to have some fun, she said. But know this: The game wasn't going to end without her hitting at least one.

"I was going to make one before the buzzer hit zero, even if I took 20 of them," she said.