Hawkeye women can't afford second loss to Illini on Wednesday
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s an overused term in sports. A hyphenated, two-word adjective that gets tossed around like a beach ball at a baseball game before someone mercifully pops it.
But sometimes, if employed in moderation, if applied to the right situation, this term is allowed.
At a glance, Iowa’s game this Wednesday against Illinois fits those must-win parameters. The Hawkeyes’ RPI already took a big blow with a road loss to the Illini. It can’t afford another.
Plus, the Hawkeyes host No. 3 Maryland on Saturday. They don’t want to enter that game at 1-3 in conference, with an ugly 1-4 likely staring them in the face.
So ... is Wednesday a must-win?
"I think it is," Megan Gustafson said. "We lost at their place, and I know we haven't done the greatest on the road, and I think that having them here at home is going to give us a boost of confidence."
Tania Davis’ take: "We’re going to approach it as a redemption game. We went into Champaign and we didn’t play the way we could have and should have played. Me, personally, and I know Ally’s going to go in with a chip on her shoulder."
And head coach Lisa Bluder: "This is an important game against Illinois. And I’m telling you, Illinois is a much different team than they were in the nonconference season. We’ve played well in Carver. Take the comfort of that, the confidence of that, in knowing we have an opportunity here to redeem ourselves a little bit."
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Iowa can also take comfort in knowing nearly everything that could have gone wrong did in its 70-65 loss in Champaign — and it still only lost by five.
Davis missed all six of her shots and scored zero points. Ally Disterhoft mustered 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting, including 0-for-8 from long range. As a team, Iowa shot 7-for-28 on 3-pointers. Christina Buttenham, Kathleen Doyle and Davis were all in foul trouble.
The Hawkeyes also tied a season-high with 23 turnovers, which Illinois turned into 24 points. And they scored a season-low nine points off the bench.
Bluder gave players last weekend off while coaches hit the recruiting trail, but for those two days of practice in between the Penn State loss and the weekend, Gustafson said limiting turnovers was a primary focus.
They committed 18 against Penn State and have the fifth-most (276) in the Big Ten.
"In practice we have these half-court drills, and we only get three or five balls depending on the drill. If we run out of balls, (because) with each turnover, they take away a ball, then after that we run to get the ball back," she said. "We didn’t have to run hardly at all, so it’s good improvement.
"Right now we’re really not where we want to be record-wise. But I think we’re growing and we’ve been going really hard in practices this last week."
Distance shooting has also been a major point of concern. Iowa shot 2-for-19 from beyond the arc against Penn State and 6-for-21 in a close win against Nebraska.
Its 31.5 percent mark from long range ranks 12th in the Big Ten. And if we remove a bizarre three-day stretch in December when the Hawkeyes went 24-for-37 on 3-balls against Northern Iowa and Iowa State, they’re shooting just 26.9 percent (72-for-268), which would rank last in conference.
"It’s one of those things — you’ve just got to keep believing right?" Bluder said. "You keep working on it, you keep executing it. We go back and watch the 3s that we’re taking, and we’re taking good 3s. ... It’s just one of those mindsets. That week against UNI and Iowa State, we were putting those down. And we need to get that mindset back again."
Iowa should — and needs to — beat Illinois. But, to be fair, the Illini don't resemble the cupcake opponent they were before Big Ten play. They lost big to Michigan State before dismantling Rutgers last Saturday.
Sophomore forward Alex Wittinger averages 14.4 points and 8.7 boards, and she tops the Big Ten by far with 2.6 blocks per game.
In 13 nonconference games, Illinois was shooting 38 percent (29 percent on 3s) and committing 14.3 turnovers per game. Through its 2-1 conference start, it’s shooting 42 percent (40 percent on 3s) and committing 12.7 turnovers per game.
Bain covers Hawkeyes' basketball for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.
Iowa (10-6) vs. Illinois (7-9)
When/where: 7 p.m., Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV: Big Ten Network Plus
About the game: Illinois primarily plays zone defense, which helped force Iowa's 23 turnovers in its 70-65 loss to Illinois to open up conference play. The Illini converted those turnovers into 24 points.