Hawkeyes have 'no room for error' against highly touted No. 14 Ohio State

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s a double-edged sword Thursday night.

On one hand, the chance to knock off a highly ranked squad could easily re-ignite a scuffling Iowa bunch, which has dropped four of the last five while slipping into the bottom half of the Big Ten Conference standings. But the opportunity carries buzz only because the task — trying to knock off one of the conference’s elite and nation’s best — is so daunting.

Either way, No. 14 Ohio State (16-4, 5-2 Big Ten) is trekking to town in what is arguably the No. 25 Hawkeyes’ biggest home game of the season. It’s on Iowa (15-5, 3-4) to take advantage.

“A win over Ohio State kind of eliminates a lot of things, doesn’t it?” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said this week. “It’d do a lot for our resume, a lot for our confidence. It would be amazing.

Iowa's Kathleen Doyle celebrates a basket during the Hawkeyes' game against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018.

“So we have to put a performance together like we did against Florida State. We’re going to have to play a really good game because this is a really good team coming in here. There’s no room for error with this team, but it’s a huge motivator for our team to come out and get a good ‘W.’ And obviously, they’re excited to play. They want to play back on their home court, and they want to have this opportunity to go against a really good team.”

The Buckeyes enter on a bit of a skid themselves, but that doesn’t diminish their potency one bit. Ohio State has dropped two straight, including Monday’s 99-69 shellacking at Maryland, but the Buckeyes haven’t dropped three straight games since February 2014.

Kelsey Mitchell is the obvious headliner, having transformed into one of the most dominant players in the country and the sport’s history. Her 25.3 points per game currently rank second in the country — two spots ahead of Megan Gustafson’s 23.6 — and Mitchell most recently snapped the sport’s career record for made 3-pointers (442 and counting) in Monday’s loss.

“If we could put another couple people on the floor, it’d be really nice,” Bluder quipped. “We’re just going to have to try some different types of defense. I don’t think you can sit in one kind of defense — I think you’ve got to mix things up on them and keep them off-balance a little bit because they’re so good.

“They run the dribble offense, and she gets to the free-throw line a lot. They drive and pitch for threes. She’s just so explosive.”    

There are plenty of reinforcements as well. Ohio State has rolled with the same starting lineup all season, and three others outside of Mitchell — senior guard Linnae Harper (15.3 ppg), senior forward Stephanie Mavunga (15.2 ppg) and junior guard Sierra Calhoun (12.6 pgg) — all also average double figures. The only starter who doesn’t, senior guard Asia Doss, only comes up a bit short (9.2 pgg).

Iowa, though, received some help, too, with Makenzie Meyer’s Sunday return, marking the sophomore’s first game action since the Hawkeyes’ win over Drake on Dec. 22. Meyer missed six games with a left-hand fracture but was thrown right back into the fire at Minnesota, instantly regaining her starting spot while playing almost the entire game.

It was a mixed bag as Meyer racked up four assists and four steals, but she missed all five of her threes and had just four points on 1-for-8 shooting. But as Meyer continues to get reacclimated, the Hawkeyes believe her shot will start falling again.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything else,” teammate Megan Gustafson said. “The shooting’s going to come. That brace on her off-shooting hand is something that she has to get used to.” 

Thursday’s challenge kicks off an important week for the Hawkeyes, which have their first week of two conference home games after starting the Big Ten slate with five of seven on the road.

Iowa dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday and hangs on by a thread in the USA TODAY coaches' poll at No. 25. In three weeks, ESPN.com women’s bracketologist Charlie Crème has dropped Iowa from a No. 4 seed to a No. 10 seed.

But Thursday’s opportunity is there for the taking, even if it carries treacherous elements.

“We obviously have a little losing streak going here,” junior Hannah Stewart said, “but we’re not letting that get in the way of looking forward toward the next game and just trying to get out of it and get a win. That’d be really cool to get a (top-15) win here at home.” 

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.