Another high-profile opportunity awaits No. 10 Iowa women's basketball in ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — Back rooted in Iowa City after a productive West Coast weekend, the high-profile opportunities continue for Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes.

No one has March on their minds right now, but a victory in Thursday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge finale against No. 11 North Carolina State could be an important bullet point on their resume come spring — especially if the Hawkeyes (5-2) and Wolfpack (6-1) are jockeying for similar NCAA Tournament seeds.

Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena and can be seen on ESPN2. Pair Iowa’s striped stadium promotion with its No. 10 ranking, and Thursday’s environment should be a solid one against another elite foe.

“I think it’s great to have this sort of competition early in the season,” said senior McKenna Warnock. “It definitely helps us figure out what areas we need to work on, and I think it can also help build confidence in a lot of different areas. It really shows that our team can be extremely cohesive. That makes our team even stronger.”   

Wading through the first month of the college basketball season usually features a mix of blowouts with some tough tests, and the Wolfpack have had more of the former than the latter. Only one of North Carolina State’s six wins has come by fewer than 34 points, a stretch that’s allowed the Wolfpack to work in its depth pieces at a consistent rate. North Carolina State still hasn’t had a 20-point scorer this season.

The Wolfpack’s one test came in a road affair at No. 3 Connecticut, a game in which North Carolina State lost by 22 despite trailing by 5 midway through the third quarter. Either way, the Hawkeyes played the Huskies much tougher and should gain confidence from that — along with all the other positive takeaways from hanging right with one of the top powers in the women's basketball world.

“I think we’re going to try some different things and keep being pesky on defense,” said redshirt senior Kate Martin. “But NC State is a really good team. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to keep pushing our defensive effort.

“We’ve been watching film against them, and I think it’s cool they played good competition (against UConn). We have a common opponent in there. We know what we did against UConn — and we know what they did — so it’s kind of nice seeing that and being able to compare.”      

Iowa guard Kate Martin reacts after making a 3-point basket against Connecticut earlier this season

With the Wolfpack boasting extensive depth — nobody averages more than 13.6 points or 25.9 minutes per game — it’s imperative Iowa gets its secondary pieces more involved than it did Sunday. The Hawkeyes bench played just 22 total minutes and scored two points against UConn, with no one taking more than two shots.

“I need to do a better job of getting people in the games, and it needs to happen early,” Bluder said. “It can’t happen in the second half or in the fourth quarter. It’s got to happen early. We have to do a better job of that, and when you’re dealing with younger players, you’re always a little bit more nervous because you don’t know how they’re going to respond. But that’s the only way they’re going to learn.”     

The only way Iowa is going to get to where it wants to go is by charging head-on into this difficult non-conference slate. The Hawkeyes passed the Portland challenge. Now it’s time to keep moving.     

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.