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Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes seniors 'set the bar high' en route to magical final year

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Even if outside perception offered minimal confidence at best, Iowa’s senior trio knew last season’s Elite Eight run didn’t have to be the end. If those few pivotal veterans could guide a group of promising potential, the Hawkeyes felt they had something.

Safe to say, this season's occurrences have made for a dream scenario.

Ahead of Thursday’s 6 p.m., senior night affair against Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, No. 20 Iowa (22-5, 13-3 Big Ten Conference) is eyeing extensive March glory again — buoyed by the final runs of Kathleen Doyle, Makenzie Meyer and Amanda Ollinger. One is among the conference’s best. Another is as reliable as they come from deep. And the third has embraced the grunt work for her best season yet.

.It’s clear those three are why Iowa sits where it does.

“They set the bar high to begin with this season,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said. “Nobody else did, but those guys believed. And if your seniors are believing and setting that tone, freshmen and sophomores are likely going to follow that example. I really credit them immensely for the success we’ve had this year.”

Iowa guard Kathleen Doyle, left, gets a high-five from Iowa forward Amanda Ollinger after drawing a foul during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

It had to start up top if Iowa was going to survive last season’s senior departures.

Doyle had been a solid scoring option behind Megan Gustafson the previous two years; could she make the leap into program leader?

Meyer’s gift has always been from beyond the arc; could the consistency come the way it needed to with the Hawkeyes’ offensive changes?

And could Ollinger — who’s played almost everywhere in an Iowa jersey — morph into a productive interior option?

Yes, yes — and yes.

Doyle stands as perhaps the front-runner for Big Ten player of the year, leading to another campaign for elite status from Iowa’s marketing team. The 5-foot-9 guard ranks in the top 40 nationally in assists (172, sixth), assists per game (6.4, eighth), free throws made (132, 18th), total points (498, 27th) and points per game (18.4, 37th). Those figures also rank first, first, third, fourth and fourth in the Big Ten.

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Meyer’s numbers have surged as well. Her 3-point percentage has jumped from 35% to 41% so far, resulting in more made threes through 27 games than Meyer had last year in 34 contests. Also improving have been rebounding totals (2.3 to 3.8 per game), scoring (9.2 to 14.3 points per game) and steals (19 to 32). She’s had six 20-point games while only scoring in single figures eight times.

Ollinger’s senior outlook was a little less defined, but the Linn-Mar product has shifted into a reliable rebounding and defensive option just in time. Even with its guard-centric approach, Iowa was going to need reinforcements around Monika Czinano. Career-highs in rebounds (8.7), points (6.8) and blocks (52) accentuate Ollinger’s growth.

Whenever and wherever the season ends, these three will comprise Iowa’s winningest senior class. Not bad for a group that had to follow one of the Hawkeyes’ most decorated classes — in Gustafson, Hannah Stewart and Tania Davis.

“I think the season has definitely been (a best-case scenario to finish a career),” Meyer said. “It’s just really cool that not many people expected us to be in the place we’re in. We took that to heart, and we’re just going to keep fighting every game. Hopefully, we’ll be able to play a couple more games at Carver if we do well finishing out the season.”

Although a Big Ten regular-season title remains mathematically in play, Bluder made clear Wednesday that securing a hosting spot in the NCAA Tournament is the most crucial goal right now. The Hawkeyes are in good shape for now, up to a No. 3 seed in ESPN’s latest bracketology. Up to two more games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena would do wonders in extending these seniors’ careers.      

Having just gone through a season where massive goals loomed late, Doyle, Meyer and Ollinger have been the perfect candidates to keep a young unit grounded. It’s shown throughout the grueling Big Ten schedule, where Iowa has rarely not taken care of business when expected.

Do so Thursday, and these graduating Hawkeyes can enjoy their senior night festivities. They certainly deserve it after what’s unfolded on their watch.

“It was hard to picture doing the same exact thing as last year’s team, just based on who we graduated and things like that. But I definitely had a lot of confidence,” Doyle said. “You just never know how a season is going to go, so you just take it day by day and control what you can control.

“It’s turned out to be really great for us.”    

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.