Back home after riveting road win, No. 9 Iowa women's basketball readies for Northwestern battle

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — Fresh off a riveting ranked win that has confidence rejuvenated, the No. 9 Iowa women’s basketball team heads back into the Big Ten slog with a tricky, but manageable matchup.

Back at home for the first time in the new year, the Hawkeyes (12-4, 4-1 Big Ten Conference) are readying for Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. showdown against Northwestern (6-9, 0-5) — a foe that has played Iowa competitively over the last few seasons but is currently going through a rebuilding stretch under veteran coach Joe McKeown.

Five times the Hawkeyes have faced Northwestern over the last two seasons, with the Wildcats securing wins in both games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena during that span. Iowa did topple Northwestern on its way to a Big Ten Tournament title last season, but the games against McKeown’s “Blizzard” defense have rarely been easy affairs for Bluder’s squad.

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“Joe has really marketed this ‘Blizzard’ well to sell a lot of tapes and a lot of books,” Bluder said with a laugh. “It’s not that fancy and a whole lot different than ours. But I think he makes that perception of it, and so it really helps. I will be the first to tell Joe that to his face, so it’s OK if you say that. I like to give him a lot of trouble about that. He’s not playing as much of his zone defense (this season). It’s 65-35 right now, where it used to be around 85-15. He’s not doing it as much as he used to, but I hope he got rich off it.     

“It’s basically a zone defense, and then they put that second person in the high post area. They’ll switch on all ball screens in that area. She’s there to stop all the drive action into the high post. … Also from that position, she can go down and double the post if she wants to. Just different nuances to a zone defense.”  

This year, though, looks to be different than past Northwestern seasons. Gone is team captain and do-it-all standout Veronica Burton, who was twice named Big Ten defensive player of the year during her decorated Northwestern tenure. Burton was the key piece in the Wildcats’ most recent edition of the “Blizzard.”

Trying to find a replacement has forced McKeown to alter his defensive tendencies just a bit. Pair that with the Hawkeyes’ veteran roster, and there’s belief Iowa can solve the Wildcats’ peculiarity quicker than in past matchups.  

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“Just being a veteran team, we’ve played against it so many times,” Iowa guard Gabbie Marshall said. “Three times in one year last year. We’ve practiced where we will be open — when to cut, when not to cut — based on the things they do within the Blizzard. So I think we’ve got the hang of it.”

Iowa looked like it had the hang of plenty Saturday, as the Hawkeyes shined on the national stage in a needed road win over then-No. 19 Michigan. Although calling any January victory a statement win often feels like a reach, Iowa needed more substance on its resume if it wants to be seeded in a Final Four-contending position come March.

Wednesday's game doesn’t provide that same opportunity, and neither does Saturday’s home game against Penn State. But just as important as securing big wins is avoiding detrimental losses. A stumble against Northwestern would certainly qualify as such.