How Iowa women's basketball has used the Creighton upset to fuel this season's expectations
IOWA CITY — The bubbly, exuberant personality that Monika Czinano regularly shows was buried deep below a mountain of shock and sadness. McKenna Warnock unsuccessfully tried to distract herself with tests and homework. Many of their Iowa women’s basketball teammates tried to cope using similar methods, without much luck.
“It sounds a little dramatic,” Czinano said, “but the whole week was like a grieving process.”
These were the opening scenes of Iowa’s 2022 offseason, one that started much earlier than expected following the Hawkeyes’ stunning second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Creighton on March 20. Storybook elements of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena and national TV audience became footnotes after such an abrupt ending to a season that carried legitimate Final Four aspirations.
Then, amid the disappointing aftermath, Czinano mustered one reassuring thought.
“I woke up and said, ‘Thank God I have one more year,’” Iowa’s all-conference center recalled. “Because I couldn’t imagine that being the last taste of this.”
The sting of that Sunday afternoon still exists some seven months later, but it’s been productively transformed into motivation for the campaign ahead. For all the encouraging vibes surrounding Iowa women’s basketball right now — and there are deservedly plenty — these Hawkeyes believe last season’s ending weaves in the perfect reminder of how quickly that positive energy can be zapped away.
“From your greatest failures can come your greatest successes,” Iowa standout Caitlin Clark said. “… Last year, we thought we were going to get to the Final Four. But we never really had that sour taste in our mouths. We didn’t have that fire to fuel every single day. And I think that’s the difference this year.
“We’re reminded of that Creighton game, that early exit, every single day.”
Since then, there haven't been any drastic measures taken. No, the Creighton loss isn’t playing on loop in the coaches’ offices. Thursday’s media-day conversations didn’t reveal any lock screens or phone backgrounds sporting images from that infamous occurrence. The only real tangible change the upset forced is DePaul has replaced Creighton as Iowa’s “secret scrimmage” partner this year — a move Lisa Bluder said Bluejays coach and longtime friend Jim Flanery completely understood.
However, in the instances where offseason practices lacked the energy, focus or intensity expected inside Bluder’s program, memories of that painful Sunday were quickly resurfaced.
No one in Iowa colors wants that feeling again.
“If we didn’t have our butts in gear (during the summer), we’d be talking, ‘Hey remember how you felt last year?'” redshirt senior Kate Martin said. “We definitely have used it as a motivating factor, and I think that’s important for us. It’s just made our practices more competitive because whenever you think about that, you have that extra fiery edge.
“We’ve moved on from the past. But do we use it as intrinsic motivation? Yes, we definitely do.”
The Hawkeyes expect to be in the same spot next postseason — a highly seeded team hosting NCAA Tournament games in front of a sold-out crowd, eyes again on reaching the program’s first Final Four since 1993.
All the pieces are there for a magical March. Clark has ascended into the superstar everyone projected. Czinano has followed legend Megan Gustafson more emphatically that anyone imagined. Other starters Gabbie Marshall, Warnock and Martin know how to work around and with their two all-Big Ten teammates. Bringing in Central Michigan transfer Molly Davis offers seasoned point-guard depth the Hawkeyes didn’t really have last season.
Additionally, Iowa’s freshmen enter an intense but not overwhelming situation — where they can get accustomed to college basketball at their own speed while still being entrenched in high-profile basketball situations. No newcomer is being asked to run the show.
Teams aren’t put atop their preseason conference polls by accident, nor do they appear in the top five nationally by happenstance. Amid this Iowa women’s basketball resurgence that now includes two transcendent superstars, this season could certainly become the crown jewel of it all.
That fact is what eventually brought Czinano out of her post-Creighton funk. That’s why Iowa has already set a program record with 5,200 season tickets sold. That’s why last season’s ugly March ending isn't being completely forgotten.
"It's just a great reminder to everybody that every possession counts. One basket counts. One rebound counts. One turnover counts. That's all it really came down to," Bluder said. “… But it has definitely been a very good driving motivator for our team. We talk about it a lot. We talk about it almost daily. We're bringing up examples from that game or that we fell short, because I think if you don't do that, you're not using an opportunity to really motivate your athletes and kind of fuel the fire a little bit for them."
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.