Intensity ramps up as Hawkeye women head down home stretch
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The home stretch is upon us.
The calendar flips to February on Thursday, leaving Iowa just seven more regular-season games to make a final push for March. The Hawkeyes (16-6, 4-5 Big Ten Conference) currently sit on the right side of things — they’re a No. 9 seed in ESPN.com’s latest bracketology — but each remaining contest carries significant weight. Resume and RPI are the buzzwords for the next month, and the Hawkeyes want to make sure they do all they can to strengthen both.
After a seesawing week that included Iowa following up a top-15 upset over Ohio State with an ugly loss to Nebraska, the Hawkeyes will try to regain their footing in Thursday’s road showdown at Michigan State (14-8, 4-5). The matchup is already Iowa’s sixth conference game away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I really believe that every time you get a ‘W’ in the Big Ten, it’s huge as far as not only your RPI — but your resume for the selection committee,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday. “So I think these last seven games and how we perform in the Big Ten Tournament are very important as to what postseason tournament we’re in.”
Like the Hawkeyes, Michigan State has dealt with its own short-handed issues during the Big Ten slate. The Spartans, which opened conference play 4-2 before dropping their last three, dressed only eight players in recent losses to Indiana and Michigan.
Michigan State got a couple pieces back — starting point guard Taryn McCutcheon (concussion) and Lexi Gussert (arm) — in Saturday’s loss to Ohio State. But redshirt sophomore guard Shay Colley (MCL) remains questionable after missing the previous three games. Claire Hendrickson and Mardrekia Cook are both done for the year as well following ACL tears.
The Spartans, though, still boast weapons down low in freshman forward Sidney Cooks and junior center Jenna Allen, who stand as the team’s co-leading scorers at 10.8 points per game.
“A lot of depth at the inside position,” Bluder said. “Their guard play has been hampered because of people being out for injuries, and that really was a big part of their game. Like at Michigan (in a 74-48 loss), they had no point guard. Both of their two point guards were out with injury. Now, they’re both back, and so that makes a very big difference for this team.”
You can say the same about Iowa’s guard play. The Ohio State upset again revealed how dominant the Hawkeyes can be when the outside shooting (9-for-17) and assists (26) are there, while the Nebraska letdown illustrated what can happen when both aren’t (1-for-12 from deep and 15 assists).
Sunday’s 92-74 loss was Iowa’s first this season where it got significantly throttled, trailing by as many as 36 points on its own floor. It was just the Hawkeyes’ second double-digit defeat, but the first — an 80-64 loss at Maryland — involved Iowa playing decently following a rough first quarter.
With March swiftly approaching, every game, every quarter is essential. Iowa’s resume and RPI are both strong enough for an NCAA Tournament bid at the moment, but a sluggish finish could certainly see things flip the wrong way.
There's no time to waste in rebounding from Sunday's adversity.
“Our leadership is there,” Megan Gustafson said after the Nebraska loss, “but we need to keep that going — having that leadership and making sure the team knows that we can still do great things.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.