Leistikow: A frustrating night for Lisa Bluder, Iowa women's basketball in Ames

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

AMES — Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder is rarely afraid to tell things how she sees them. She opened her news conference after the Hawkeyes’ first loss to Iowa State in six years with some frustration.

“When you don’t shoot free throws, it’s hard to win a game,” Bluder said after Wednesday’s 77-70 setback before a terrific crowd at Hilton Coliseum. “We only shoot six. They shoot 22. I felt like we should’ve been shooting a lot more.

“When you give up 16 (more) free throws to a really good basketball team, it’s hard to win.”

As Bluder sized up the stat sheet, she saw that her two star players — Monika Czinano and Caitlin Clark — were 5-for-5 from the line. The rest of the Iowa team was 0-for-1.

The last time Iowa shot fewer than six free throws in a game? A Nov. 24, 2018 loss to Florida State in which Iowa shot 3-for-4.

“I think we drew a lot of fouls that weren’t called. I thought (Czinano) got beat up like crazy,” Bluder said. “And they have 15 fouls to give with three posts. They were willing to use them. But you’ve got to call them to use them.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark appeals for a foul call during the Hawkeyes' 77-70 loss to Iowa State.

Coaches always want to more foul calls, of course. And they know that foul disparities can sometimes be the plight of road teams in a hostile environment. Iowa State was whistled for 12 fouls to Iowa’s 20.

“It was pretty physical. I thought I got pretty beat up. I thought Monika got a lot of contact as well,” said Clark, who was 10-for-26 from the field and committed six turnovers. “It’s not anything you don’t see in the Big Ten. It’s something we’re used to.”

The Cyclones (9-1) snapped their five-game series losing streak by being aggressive. They hustled for a lot of early loose balls to set the tone and led for more than 30 minutes. They finished with a 44-39 rebounding edge, too. Seeing the Hawkeyes (5-2) look a step slow brought up another question.

Is Iowa still feeling the effects of its COVID-19 pause?

First things first, Bluder wasn’t using the Hawkeyes’ positive COVID-19 tests in November — which essentially shut down team activities for nearly two weeks — as an excuse.

“I’m not going to sit here and say that’s why we lost this game. Does it have an impact when kids have COVID? I think it does,” Bluder said. “I think it’s hard to battle back from that. But Iowa State played great tonight. They played really, really well. So be it.”

But the Hawkeyes obviously weren’t their high-scoring, efficient selves on Wednesday. They shot 40.6% from the floor, couldn’t string much together and faded late. They made just 6 of 19 fourth-quarter shots.

Before the pause, Iowa was ranked No. 9 in the country with a 4-0 record, averaging 88.3 points and outscoring opponents by 30.3 per game.

In the three games since the pause, Iowa is 1-2 with an ugly loss at Duke; one OK half and one great second half against Michigan State; and Wednesday’s loss in Ames.

Bluder said canceling three games — one against Drake and two neutral-site matchups in Cancun — was a bigger loss than just the time off.

“We only had six games coming in here. And you learn a lot from those games,” Bluder said. “Two of those games would’ve been played away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which would’ve been great for us.”

Iowa can look to last season's NCAA men’s champion to find a team that found COVID-19 adversity and eventually overcame it.

After Baylor was steamrolling the competition into February of 2021, it had to pause basketball activities and had a full three weeks between games. In its first game back, Baylor struggled to beat last-in-the-Big 12 Iowa State at home then got beaten soundly at Kansas. The Bears needed time to get their legs back. Once they got back into the flow, they were dynamic.

That's not to say Iowa will be fine and win a national championship. But recovering is going to take time. And it’s frustrating to Bluder that Iowa plays only two games over the next three weeks and none until Dec. 18 against Central Florida.

“I don’t think we’re running our offense. We were doing really well, and then we have three games and now another big break,” Bluder said. “We need to get some consistency. We need to play some games.”

Hat tip to the atmosphere, buzz at Hilton Coliseum.

The crowd was terrific in a top-15 matchup. Two Iowa City natives delivered double-doubles for Bill Fennelly's Iowa State team. Ashley Joens had 26 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes; Aubrey Joens had 12 points and 11 rebounds in 39:28. They gave it their all.

Clark, on Iowa’s side, played 39:45 and delivered some highlight-reel 3-pointers, including one from about 30 feet toward the Iowa State student section. She finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Last year's thriller in Iowa City, won by Iowa with a 17-point comeback, didn't have in-person fans (beyond family) in attendance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It was good to see these two terrific teams with two legendary coaches go toe to toe, with fans roaring at their every move for two hours.

“To have a crowd like that, to have a student section like that, I love to see that. Good for them,” Clark said. “I’m glad these fans came out and watched two quality teams. I think that’s just great for women’s basketball and the state of Iowa.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.