After last season's stumble, Hawkeyes looking to keep focus sharp in return trip to Illinois

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — During college basketball’s long, grueling season, images from the past can prove beneficial when inserted properly. They often aren’t item No. 1 on the preparation, rather little reminders of what can go wrong when focus is lost.

Iowa's Kathleen Doyle shoots a 3-pointer during the Hawkeyes' game against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017.

Iowa will certainly get one this weekend.

Coming off Thursday’s loss at Maryland — the Hawkeyes’ first defeat in five weeks — Lisa Bluder’s squad will look to rebound Sunday afternoon at Illinois. The Fighting Illini are planted near the bottom of the conference, just as they were last season when they stunned Iowa, 70-65, in Champaign.

“The Big Ten is a tough conference, and beating Illinois on its home court is something we couldn’t achieve last year,” Bluder said Friday. “So we’ll definitely use that reminder to get our team focused for this game, but quite honestly, it hasn’t been a problem for our team to be focused in our practices and getting ready for the next game.”

With how close Iowa came to making the NCAA Tournament last season, one can point to the Illinois loss as one of the few reasons why. The Illini finished 9-22 with an 11-game losing streak and won just three conference games. The talent discrepancy between the two programs was evident in the rematch, when Iowa rolled to a 78-58 home win last Jan. 11.

The Champaign stumble, though, undoubtedly stung.

“We kind of want to get a little bit of revenge, especially bouncing off a loss to Maryland,” junior Megan Gustafson said Friday on KGYM. “We really want to come together.

“We came back (Friday) and had a great energized practice, and so that was really nice to see. Again, we’re just going to give them our best shot.”   

In its second ranked matchup in five days, the No. 17 Hawkeyes (14-2, 2-1 Big Ten) hung with 13th-ranked Maryland over the final three quarters — but a slow start dug Iowa too deep of a hole. The Terrapins owned a 31-17 lead after the opening 10 minutes and cruised to an 80-64 win, as Iowa racked up 23 turnovers and just 17 assists.

Iowa's Kathleen Doyle high-five's Chase Coley for saving the ball during the Hawkeyes' game against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017.

The Hawkeyes spent much of the nonconference as the nation’s assist-per-game leader, and although they still rank third (22.7) behind powerhouses Connecticut and Baylor, the numbers haven’t been quite as impressive in conference play.

Iowa is averaging just 16 assists per contest through three Big Ten games and hasn’t cracked 20 once, after doing so in 11 of its 13 nonconference showdowns.

“It’s very alarming,” Bluder said. “It’s something that we’ve always prided ourselves on — high assists, low turnovers. And it’s frustrating when we’re making some unforced turnovers. Those are the ones that, I guess, are frustrating — or rushing ourselves and making turnovers.

“I think a large part of it is, yeah, you’re seeing the effects (of the backcourt injuries to Tania Davis and Makenzie Meyer). Alexis (Sevillian) is a freshman, and Amanda (Ollinger) didn’t get a whole lot of playing time last year. We’re out two point guards and are paying the price for that. So I think it’s going to take some growing pains to get that back under control.”

A trip to Illinois could be the perfect fix. The Illini (9-8, 0-3) have dropped four straight by a combined 106 points, albeit to two ranked teams (Missouri and Maryland) and another likely NCAA Tournament squad (Rutgers). Illinois boasts a solid point guard in sophomore Brandi Beasley (12.2 ppg), but the Hawkeyes enter as heavy favorites and should take care of business if the focus is there.

But they know what can happen if it isn’t.

“You have to be fully focused,” Bluder said. “You have to respect every opponent and be ready to play every game.” 

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.