By John Bohnenkamp
The thought came to Caitlin Clark in the morning shootaround.
It was Iowa’s first look at San Antonio’s Bill Greehey Arena, and Clark liked everything she saw.
“It was a shooter’s gym,” the freshman guard said.
So she mentioned it to Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, who has figured out in just one season that Clark has a sharp eye when it comes to shooting.
“Hey, I believe her,” Bluder said. “If she thinks it’s a shooter’s gym, let her have it.”
And so Clark thrived in the cramped, dark arena, scoring 35 points as the Hawkeyes defeated Kentucky 86-72 in Tuesday’s NCAA tournament second-round game.
Iowa (20-9) is headed to the regional semifinals for the second consecutive tournament. A team that started the season with plenty of questions is still playing.
“This team,” Clark said, “just believed.”
Bluder said at the beginning of the year that she thought her team could be good this season, she just wasn’t sure when. That time appears to be now — the Hawkeyes have won eight of their last 10 games, six of their last seven.
A team that starts a freshman, three sophomores, and one junior looks completely mature on a big stage, even if that stage is a dimly-lit arena on a weekday afternoon.
“We’re a young team,” Bluder said, “and we’re going to build on this.”
The Hawkeyes, a 5 seed in the tournament, were never challenged by the No. 4 seed Wildcats (18-9). Iowa led 11-0 in the first 4:11 of the game, with every starter scoring in that opening burst.
“You start out 11-0, make them call a timeout real quick, that was, I think, the best start I’ve seen in a long time on both ends of the court,” Bluder said.
“Honestly, I usually don’t notice things like that,” Clark said of that scoring balance. “But I did notice that. I was like, ‘That’s perfect.’ We need multiple people scoring, we need multiple people in double figures. Having that gets everyone’s confidence rolling.”
Clark’s confidence was rolling all day, much as it has been all season. She leads the nation in scoring at 26.8 points per game, and her final point total in this game was a program record for an NCAA tournament game.
“I really liked the court, obviously,” Clark said. “It seemed almost like kind of a high school court, in a way. The arena was pretty compact.”
“She really believed it felt like her high school gym,” Bluder said. “She was feeling pretty good this morning.”
Clark was 13-of-21 from the field, 6-of-12 in 3-pointers.
“She had an unbelievable night,” Bluder said.
“When the shot is feeling good and keeps going down, you keep shooting,” Clark said.
The Hawkeyes shot 57.4 percent, feeling just as comfortable as Clark.
“I thought it was a shooter’s gym,” Clark said. “And I thought we kind of proved that tonight with our shooting.”
Iowa’s defense, a struggle all season, held Kentucky to 22 points on 21.6 percent shooting in the first half — Clark outscored the Wildcats by two in the half.
“I thought we came out with great defensive energy in the first half,” Bluder said. “It was tremendous.”
Monika Czinano had 14 points for the Hawkeyes, while McKenna Warnock added 10.
Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, like Clark an All-American this season, had 28 points.
This was Clark’s show, though. She has scored 58 points in her first two NCAA tournament games.
“I’m just so impressed with her mental maturity,” Bluder said. “To come into a situation where you’re identified as one of the top freshmen in the country, second-team All-American, she doesn’t let it go to her head. She’s managed that, and that can be a lot to manage.
“She lives for these kinds of experiences. She’s best on a big stage. She has it now, and she’s enjoying it, and she’s getting better all of the time.”
Clark sees a bigger picture. She knows how she and the Hawkeyes have gotten to this point.
“So that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Clark said. “Keep being us.”
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark goes in for a layup during Tuesday’s NCAA Tournament game against Kentucky. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)