Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes shake off dismal first half for comeback win over Penn State

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The opening 20 minutes were so disastrous, Lisa Bluder's coping method morphed from ambiguous yelling to palms up in frustration. You could make an easy argument it was Iowa's worst half of the season.

The opponent — under-.500 Penn State coming off back-to-back blowout losses — was still vulnerable enough to allow for a Hawkeye rally. But would it actually come under such dire circumstances? It's no exaggeration that Iowa's at-large hopes hung precariously halfway through what would be a dismal loss. 

In plenty of time, Iowa re-gathered. 

A downtown barrage to start the third quarter erased Penn State's energy — and Iowa exposed the Lady Lions' vulnerability from there the way so many other teams have this season. The final reading hid the Hawkeyes' initial sputter quite well, as Iowa pulled away for a 96-78 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. 

"The way Penn State came out was really impressive. It was pretty amazing," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "...But I'm really proud of my team though at halftime, we all just kind of took a deep breath."

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) makes a 3-point as Penn State guard Shay Hagans (23) defends during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Following a first half where Penn State embarrassed Iowa (12-6, 8-6 Big Ten Conference) on the boards and drained a staggering 10 treys en route to a 52-41 intermission lead, the Hawkeyes needed signs of life soon. The Lady Lions (8-10, 5-9) came bellowing out of the locker room with all the juice and poise, intent on seizing this upset chance. 

Iowa, to its credit, climbed back in immediately. Four treys in five minutes  — including three from Kate Martin — paired nicely with easy Monika Czinano looks at the rim. A 19-10 run to start the third quarter had Iowa within a possession. Threes from Caitlin Clark and Gabbie Marshall handed the Hawkeyes the lead entering the final period. 

A 12-2 Iowa run began the fourth. The Hawkeyes pressed cruise control from there. 

"The biggest thing tonight — going into the fourth quarter only up two — is in some of our previous games, we've had a few (late) meltdowns. And against Penn State, all we did was stretch that lead more and more," Clark said. "That's very promising and great for our team to see that we've improved in that area."     

Clark headlined the comeback with 32 points — 20 in the second half — while draining six 3-pointers. Several other box-score figures popped, including 19 points and 11 assists from Martin, 17 points via Czinano and 15 points from McKenna Warnock.

Iowa guard Kate Martin (20) makes a 3-point basket during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Penn State, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Both of Martin's double-digit contributions easily set career-highs, arriving in her first game without the facial mask she'd been wearing since suffering a broken nose — and additional re-breaks — earlier this season. 

"It had been six weeks since the Illinois game (on Jan. 3 when Martin originally broke her nose), and after the last time I got hit, it hasn't been as sore anymore," Martin explained. "So I was asking our trainer if I could, this week, try without the mask. It's been fine, felt fine, and so she let me not wear it this game.

"It's nice."

Equally as nice for Iowa was its defensive correction. Penn State scored only 26 points and hit four treys in the second half, also failing to maintain its dominance on the glass. Iowa held the Lady Lions to 16 second-half rebounds after surrendering 32 before the break.     

Without that, Iowa was likely staring down disaster on its home floor. A loss to meddling Penn State and the Hawkeyes would've need at least one, if not more, ranked upsets in the coming weeks. 

Instead, all Thursday's affair finishes as is a strange game in a stranger season. 

"Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience with coming out of halftime down," Martin said. "We were confident going into that second half, and we really just had a defensive mindset. That's where things started to change.

"Coach had to do what she had to at halftime to get us fired up. But I think we just all stayed positive because we knew that (first half) was a fluke."      

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.