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Makenzie Meyer says Iowa's chemistry is growing after Puerto Rico tourney. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Following a mostly productive week in Caribbean waters, the Iowa women’s basketball team is back home with a better understanding of how this young unit will operate. The Hawkeyes are gradually moving out of unknown territory.

“We’re gaining chemistry,” senior Makenzie Meyer said. “This is a really young group, so it takes a while sometimes to really mend together, but I think we’re finally starting to get to that point where we’re feeling more comfortable with each other. It’s exciting going forward.”

A 2-1 showing at the Puerto Rico Clasico saw Iowa (5-2) pick up wins over Cincinnati and Towson before falling to Washington in the weekend finale. That stretch gives way to Wednesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge affair against Clemson — the second of three straight games versus Power Five foes.

Unsurprisingly, it’s taken the Hawkeyes time to find their footing. Four mid-major matchups to start the year saw Iowa struggle in all but one, even with a 3-1 record. Some of those questions were answered in Puerto Rico, where the Hawkeyes had a different leading scorer in all three games. Being able to win ugly against Cincinnati and emphatically versus Towson at least provided a glimpse of versatility for Iowa’s group.

Defensively, the Hawkeyes improved drastically last week. After giving up nearly 80 points per game in its first four contests, Iowa didn’t let a Puerto Rico foe reach 75. Cincinnati, Towson and Washington combined to shoot 38 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep against Lisa Bluder’s team.

Couple that with freshmen emergence as the Hawkeyes’ biggest early-season changes. Cincinnati native Gabbie Marshall has wedged her way into a nice role as the backup point guard, providing solid minutes off the bench. She’s played no fewer than 23 minutes the last four games.

“Our freshmen are really getting comfortable in their roles,” Bluder said, “especially Gabbie and McKenna (Wanock). They seem to really understand that they are a big part of it now. We felt like coming into this year, the sooner our freshmen embraced and felt a part of it, the quicker we were going to become a better basketball team. I think they’re understanding it now and realizing we are counting on them, even though they are freshmen.”

That aspect has boosted Marshall’s confidence in particular. She knows she’s a valuable piece, as emphasized by the few veteran pieces around her.

“It’s just so much easier when you’re playing with a great group of girls,” Marshall said. “Just knowing my role and having the confidence to perform in that role. I think as a freshman, there’s always that little lack of confidence as you start and don’t really know what to expect.

“But, I think it’s honestly the team that has made me feel more comfortable — talking and being a leader. So that’s just made me more confident in my game.”

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Gabbie Marshall details her freshmen emergence in the early going . Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

A win Wednesday would amplify the Hawkeyes’ growth. Like Iowa, the Tigers (3-4) are finding their way after losing multiple players from an NCAA Tournament team. A rigorous schedule has hampered the transition. But it’s still a Power Five foe — and Iowa shouldn’t complain about any positivity at this point.

It will be a unique reunion with Clemson graduate manager Tania Davis coming back to town. The former Iowa point guard’s graduation is among the reasons why the Hawkeyes are rebuilding a bit this season. Davis, along with former forward Hannah Stewart, will receive their Big Ten Tournament title rings before Wednesday’s game.

Then, it’s on to business.

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.

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