With another hyped game ahead, No. 6 Iowa women's basketball believes it has big-game routine down

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — For all the deserved attention surrounding Thursday’s massive Big Ten women’s basketball matchup, the No. 6 Hawkeyes feel like they have this big-game routine down.

Iowa (19-4, 11-1 Big Ten Conference) may not exit Assembly Hall with a victory — No. 3 Indiana (22-1, 12-1) is quite impressive — but the Hawkeyes' veteran unit headlined by Caitlin Clark isn’t going to be rattled by the hype or what’s expected to be a raucous environment. Tipoff is slated for 5:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.  

"They like it. They enjoy it. I really think they do," said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder this week. "They’ve gotten used to playing in a loud environment here in Carver. The hostile environment, people yelling at you and stuff, sometimes it can bring out the best in Caitlin.

"It might not be a bad thing."    

With one top-10 matchup down and potentially three more to go, February was always going to be a swing month for Iowa when it came to potentially repeating as Big Ten champions and positioning itself best for the NCAA tournament.

Iowa conquered the first of those challenges last Thursday against then-No. 9 Maryland. Clark’s 42-point outing garnered most of the headlines, but Monika Czinano’s 14-for-18 shooting performance for 28 big points was just as pivotal. The All-Big Ten center will likely need another massive night for the Hawkeyes to emerge victorious Thursday.

That’s because, unlike Maryland’s guard-heavy lineup that created exploitable mismatches down low, Czinano will have Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes to deal with on the interior.

“I think the addition of 3-point shooters has helped Mackenzie,” said Bluder, who multiple times noted Indiana’s improved downtown presence that’s seen the Hoosiers go from seventh last season to fourth in Big Ten 3-point shooting percentage.  

“She has always been a really good post-player. Somebody who is obviously very accurate. She was always an outstanding post-player, but you could help off people. And now with the addition of 3-point shooters, it’s helped Mackenzie’s game.”         

The 6-foot-3 senior is one of the few Big Ten forwards whose credentials compete with Czinano’s. Holmes enters this contest as the conference's second-leading scorer at 22 points per game — one spot behind Clark and two spots ahead of Czinano.

The Hawkeyes never really let Holmes get loose last season in three games that all arrived within a three-week span. Holmes had 32 points in 77 minutes across the Iowa matchups, while never scoring more than 13 points in any of them.“I think we do match up with each other pretty well,” Bluder said. “They’re a little taller than we are at guard. That’s the one thing they have that we don’t. But I think we do match up well with them. And they match up well with us.”  

Iowa's McKenna Warnock, Caitlin Clark, Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin, Monika Czinano huddle up during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Maryland last week.

Part of the reason why Iowa feels it's in a good spot for this game is the Hawkeyes know this isn’t a season-defining affair. A Thursday victory is obviously the priority. But this group knows they’ll get at least one more shot (and maybe two) against Indiana in the coming weeks, should the squads meet in the Big Ten Tournament for a second straight year.

When reaching the Final Four has been the on-record goal now for multiple campaigns, high-end regular-season games are best taken in stride without making them bigger than they need to be.

“We always treat it the same,” said veteran guard Kate Martin. “Just like coach Bluder said. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’re going to go out with the same mentality.” 

Bluder’s quote after Iowa’s first top-five win this year — "We know this game won't matter when the NCAA tournament is happening in March." — indicates this team can keep the highs of a regular season in perspective while not exaggerating them beyond what’s needed.

Expect this Iowa group to embrace it Thursday for 40 minutes, then successfully turn the page no matter what unfolds in Assembly Hall.       

“It’s exciting, but you want to keep it the same,” Bluder said. “You want to approach every game, every practice with the same mentality all the time. You can’t ride highs and lows. You have to stay steady all the time. So as we go into this, certainly, we know it’s a challenge — just like we knew Maryland was a challenge and going to Ohio State was a challenge.

“But we prepare the same way, whether it’s Penn State or Indiana.”

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.