Ahead of Rutgers showdown, Hawkeyes reward freshman walk-on Zion Sanders with scholarship

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Right before the announcement finished, Makenzie Meyer and Carly Mohns got into position, ready to attack. Their unsuspecting teammate had no chance.

When the final words rolled off Lisa Bluder’s tongue, Meyer, Mohns and the rest of the Hawkeyes pounced, bombarding freshman walk-on Zion Sanders with a group hug full of joy. Jubilation was in abundance.

Iowa's Zion Sanders drives to the hoop during the Hawkeyes' game against Northern Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.

Bluder announced after practice Monday that Sanders had been placed on full scholarship for the remainder of the season, rewarding the freshman for betting on herself. It'll be a year-by-year deal. 

"She does anything we ask her to do in practice," Bluder said. "She’s gone into games and filled in for us in situations where we absolutely needed her, and she has responded extremely well.

"At the beginning of the year, she maybe was thinking she wasn’t going to get any playing time, but she stayed the course. She is just a woman who’s of great values, and she’s the type of kid we want around our program. I was glad to be able to offer her a scholarship for this year."

Sanders didn’t join the Hawkeyes until last June, choosing to walk on at Iowa despite owning a scholarship offer from Evansville. The 5-foot-8 guard likely would’ve had more Division I offers if not for a knee injury following an all-state junior season, which limited Sanders to just 10 games as a senior.

"When she came in this summer, she was kind of quiet," Coley said. "But ... we hung out with her more and more, and she started opening up more and more to us. All of sudden, we realized, 'Whoa, she’s hilarious.'

"Now, Z and me talk all day, every day. All we do is send each other tweets on Twitter, and we’re constantly laughing. Sometimes in practice, I have to just walk away from her, or I’ll get too distracted because she kills me."

Although a scholarship was never guaranteed, Sanders always knew deep down that Iowa was the right fit.

She was determined to make it work.

"Iowa was just different for me," Sanders told Hawk Central last June. "I was going around the campus and walking to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and just fell in love with everything. Meeting the coaches and everything was so great. I think that’s when I knew I wanted to go there, even if it was just for academics. The school was just so beautiful, and I loved everything about it.”

Although Sanders has scored just 13 points in 79 minutes this season, she’s been a useful commodity as Iowa has navigated a shorthanded year.

Sanders has appeared in 19 of the Hawkeyes’ 25 games and was particularly valuable at the start of Big Ten play, when Iowa was without guards Tania Davs (torn ACL) and Makenzie Meyer (fractured hand) for a six-game stretch.

Sanders will now take her newly minted scholarship status to Rutgers, where the Hawkeyes (21-6, 9-5 Big Ten Conference) wrap up their Big Ten road slate on Wednesday. This is Iowa’s final chance at another quality regular-season victory, and the Hawkeyes need a win to keep their outside chances at a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament alive.

Although the Scarlet Knights (19-9, 7-7) have dropped six of their last eight, they’ll still likely be an NCAA Tournament squad that’s led by dynamic redshirt senior guard Tyler Scaife (19.4 ppg). ESPN.com bracketologist Charlie Crème pegged Rutgers as a No. 8 seed in his latest projection.

That’s where he had Iowa too (actually as a No. 7 seed, but a procedural bump dropped Iowa to a No. 8). Either way, a road win over Rutgers would give the Hawkeyes another solid notch on an already strong resume.

They’ll attack the task with an additional scholarship player.

"As happy as I am that I got to play this one year with her," Coley said, "I wish I got to play at least another year with her. I love that kid. She’s hilarious."     

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.