CLOSE

Tomi Taiwo breaks down her expanded role. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The thick of Big Ten Conference play isn’t an ideal time to drop a true freshman into an expanded role. But Iowa coach Lisa Bluder had little choice.

Makenzie Meyer’s hyperextended left knee has propelled first-year guard Tomi Taiwo into Iowa’s regular rotation the past two games. With Alexis Sevillian in the starting lineup while Meyer sits, Taiwo has been the Hawkeyes’ first true guard off the bench in wins over Michigan State and Ohio State.

Meyer remains day-to-day, meaning Taiwo could see double-digit minutes again as No. 13 Iowa (19-5, 10-3 Big Ten) hosts Illinois (10-14, 2-11) on Thursday. A veteran surrounding cast has made this transition much less overwhelming.

“This has been good for her to be getting these important minutes — pressure minutes, minutes in the first quarter,” Bluder said. “When you surround Tomi with Tania (Davis) or Kathleen (Doyle), you start to see how good she’s going to be for us.

“I think that’s really encouraging not only for her, but for everybody else.”     

Taiwo played 17 minutes against Michigan State and 13 at Ohio State. Those two games alone make up nearly a third of her season total (91 minutes). She combined for six points on two treys, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal and just one turnover.

Those numbers won’t stand out on a stat sheet that includes Megan Gustafson’s gaudiness and at least one other strong performer every game, but they’re valuable in their own regard.

With Meyer sidelined, Iowa doesn’t have the deepest well of true guards. Amanda Ollinger and Logan Cook are more like forward hybrids, leaving Zion Sanders as the only other guard bench option outside of Taiwo. That sixth-woman role Sevillian usually occupies needs a consistent fill-in.

Additionally, there will soon be opportunity in Iowa’s backcourt. Davis will graduate following this season. Doyle and Meyer are gone after the next. If Taiwo is ultimately elevated to a starting role in the coming years, this freshman stretch could be a nice catalyst.        

“It’s fun to see her get on the floor and give us some really meaningful minutes because I know it’s going to translate to the rest of her career,” Gustafson said. “I know it’s going to propel her, and it’s really exciting to see.”

Iowa is expected to get Meyer back at some point before season’s end, but the Hawkeyes can’t afford a letdown during this final Big Ten stretch.

A home Sunday showdown against No. 8 Maryland glows up ahead. The Hawkeyes can take another step toward a conference title with a solid showing there. March anticipation is a bit further down the road, but Monday’s committee reveal only cranks up the noise. As the No. 10 overall team and a No. 3 seed in the Portland region, Iowa is in good shape so far.

But the less enticing matchups matter all the same. That starts Thursday, when all Iowa needs from Taiwo is to do her part.

“Coming in as a freshman, there are ups and downs,” Taiwo said. “You don’t know when you’re going to play. There are obviously people ahead of you.

“But it’s just about going in there and doing whatever you can to help the team.”         

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

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE