Important stretch for No. 9 Iowa women's basketball begins with tough trek to No. 2 Ohio State
IOWA CITY — Even inside the Big Ten’s rugged women’s basketball league, opportunities like Monday don’t come along all too often.
Handed a chance to make its loudest statement this season as the March chatter begins to intensify, No. 9 Iowa (15-4, 7-1 Big Ten Conference) heads to No. 2 Ohio State (19-0, 8-0) for Monday’s nationally televised affair. It’s a tall task certainly, but the Hawkeyes have a shot to leave the first dent on the Buckeyes’ flawless resume to date. Tipoff is slated for 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
“They have four people in double figures, and that’s really, really hard to guard,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “An excellent basketball team, but I feel like we’re playing pretty good basketball right now. We’re going to do the best we can there.”
You won’t catch Bluder zooming out to digest the next month ahead. But it’s a big one for the Hawkeyes as they look to cement March positioning that could best facilitate a deep postseason run.
Starting with Monday’s game, Iowa has five top-15 matchups over the next five weeks, including home-and-homes with No. 11 Maryland and No. 6 Indiana. That’s five ranked showdowns over the Hawkeyes last 10 regular-season games, after having only four in their first 19.
Monday could be the toughest of them all. After rolling through the non-conference with headliner wins over Tennessee, Louisville and Oregon, the Buckeyes own nearly a 15-point average margin of victory in Big Ten play. Even more impressive is they’ve done that mostly without Jacy Sheldon, a unanimous first-team all-Big Ten guard from a year ago.
Sheldon has appeared in just five games and none since Nov. 30 with a lower leg injury. Bluder acknowledged that Sheldon could return Monday, but Ohio State remains mighty dangerous even if she doesn’t.
Iowa, too, is dealing with its own health issue, a recent one that developed Wednesday night when McKenna Warnock didn’t return after taking a hard screen early in the second half. It’s a rib-cage injury for Warnock, and it could very well keep her sidelined Monday.
“Really, she’s day-by-day,” Bluder said. “I don’t know if I’d say she’s doubtful for Monday. I really don’t know at this point. I’m going to have to say day-by-day.
“The people who’ve replaced McKenna in the past have been either Hannah (Stuelke) or Kate Martin. Those are the people who’ve really spent time at the power forward position.”
As far as stars go, Bluder has one of the sport’s biggest — and spent part of Sunday further defending Caitlin Clark after a chaotic ending to Wednesday’s overtime win over Michigan State.
Iowa nearly coughed up the game after Clark was whistled for an intentional foul while the Hawkeyes were about to inbound with five seconds remaining and a three-point lead. Contact from Clark while Michigan State was trying to disrupt the Hawkeyes’ stack produced the foul at a time when whistles are often swallowed on anything close.
Undoubtedly, Clark gets the most attention from any defense throughout a game. Pair that with Clark’s fiery, passionate demeanor, and friction is bound to materialize — either with the opponent or the officials.
Bluder, though, had a clear message for how her star guard should be treated on the court moving forward.
“I do think Caitlin should get more calls,” Bluder said. “We should be protecting the best players in our game. It happens in every realm, whether it’s the NBA, WNBA or men’s basketball.
“And if officials aren’t calling things because they’re rubbed the wrong way, then they should be in a different job. They should not have that job if they’re going to let a player sway how they’re calling what they’re paid to do — to call the game the correct way. They should probably have a different job.”
Iowa’s job for Monday is keep it close and see what happens late. Having the best player on the floor goes a long way, and Iowa should have that with Clark. It’s on the Hawkeyes now to not waste this grand opportunity.
Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.