Caitlin Clark, Iowa hold off Virginia Tech in top 10 showdown

CHARLOTTE — The third-ranked Iowa women’s basketball team, affectionately known as the Caitlin Clark Show in some circles, rolled into the Queen City on Thursday night for the Ally Tipoff against No. 8 Virginia Tech, an opponent also seeking to make an early-season statement in a matchup of Final Four teams from April.

The Hokies pushed the Hawkeyes, runners-up in last season’s national championship game, but Clark proved too much down the stretch, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter en route to a game-high 44 in leading Iowa to an 80-76 triumph in front of an announced Spectrum Center crowd of 15,196, one of the largest to witness a women’s basketball game in North Carolina.

“Crowds like this should become normal for women’s basketball,” Clark said. “Iowa has a great history in Title IX and making it important. I grew up a fan of women’s basketball, and I’ve always understood there’s really great players in this game who are really fun to watch. At the same time, they’re some of my biggest role models, and to see myself on this stage now, it’s very hard to wrap my hands around the environments we get to play in.”

Trailing by 10 late in the third quarter, Virginia Tech (1-1) whittled the margin to 62-60 with 7:18 to play on Cayla King’s three-pointer. But Clark made sure the Hokies got no closer. She hit a three-pointer moments later to stretch the advantage to 71-62, and the margin grew to a dozen in the final minutes.

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Clark finished 13-for-31 shooting, including an uncharacteristic 5 of 16 on three-pointers, doing much of her damage at the foul line (13 for 17) on the way to the ninth game of at least 40 points in a decorated career. The senior point guard added eight rebounds and six assists with one turnover while playing the entire 40 minutes.

Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore provided a similar jolt for the Hokies, who as a No. 1 seed in last season’s NCAA tournament advanced to the first Final Four in school history. The Australian senior guard scored a team-high 31 points, making 7 of 14 from behind the arc. Center Elizabeth Kitley, the two-time reigning ACC player of the year, chipped in 16 points in addition to game highs of 16 rebounds and three blocks.

“I’ve been in this arena when Stephen Curry was in here, and it wasn’t this loud,” Virginia Tech Coach Kenny Brooks said. “Maybe it was the seat I was sitting in, but the atmosphere in here [was amazing]. We weren’t perfect. We didn’t do everything well, we didn’t, but we played hard. We will fix the things we need to fix, and I’m very proud of the effort.”

A 13-2 run from Iowa (2-0) late in the third quarter turned a one-point deficit into a 53-43 lead with 2:10 to play when Kylie Feuerbach sank a deep three-pointer, creating space off the dribble between her and King, who spent much of the first half on the bench with two fouls and then picked up a third early in the second half.

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The game between the reigning tournament champions of their respective conferences seized on the momentum the sport generated from a record-setting Final Four last season at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The national championship game, for instance, in which LSU defeated Iowa, 102-85, drew 9.9 million TV viewers, the most for an NCAA women’s final.

Clark’s sublime shot-making throughout March Madness not only made her one of the most recognizable players in college sports but also contributed in large part to an announced attendance of 55,646 at Kinnick Stadium, where the Hawkeyes football team plays home games, for an exhibition last month against DePaul.

Iowa fans clad in black and gold gear flooded the streets around Spectrum Center well before the tip-off, packing bars and restaurants within walking distance of the arena. Many Hawkeyes supporters, regardless of gender, wore jerseys and T-shirts bearing Clark’s name and her No. 22 on the back.

“I never take it for granted,” Clark said. “We’re very far from home, and we still had an incredible crowd.”

Not to be outdone, Virginia Tech fans energetically rose and applauded in unison to the intro of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the school’s adopted fight song used most notably at the start of home football games, when Hokies players emerged out of the tunnel and onto the court for warmups.

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Amoore treated Hokies fans to the highlight of the seesaw first half before Iowa entered the locker room with a 33-32 lead. With the final seconds ticking off the clock in the first quarter, Amoore collected a pass several steps on the defensive side of half-court logo and heaved a shot that swished through the net at the buzzer.

“It was absolutely unreal,” Amoore said of the atmosphere. “To have that turnout, it’s what you dream of. I’ve been in gyms where there weren’t many people. Hopefully we inspire younger girls, high school girls to play college basketball because it’s massive.”

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