November 27, 2020
Clark sets her standard, Iowa takes care of UNI in opener
Lots to like on both sides moving forward into an uncertain season
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After Wednesday night’s win against Northern Iowa, Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder’s main takeaway was a simple one.
“This one feels good to get back,” she said, referencing the Hawkeyes’ 88-66 loss at UNI last November. “We had kind of sat on that one for a while last year.”
In what ended up being an integral piece of UNI’s success last season — it defeated in-state Division I programs Iowa, Iowa State and Drake in the same season for the first time in school history — the Panthers outscored the Hawkeyes in every quarter en route to a statement win. UNI’s Kam Finley came off the bench to score 20 points, and was joined in double figures by three other players. Iowa, meanwhile, was led by Makenzie Meyer’s 14 points, on just 25% shooting, in a game-high 37 minutes.
This time around, with UNI returning most of its firepower and Iowa’s starting five featuring only one regular starter from last season in Monika Czinano, the stage was set for another close game.
But despite the consequences of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic leading to an empty arena, rather than the hordes of fans that made up the nation’s No. 10 attendance last season, Iowa didn’t just win, it dominated. The Hawkeyes’ 96-81 victory extended their nation’s second-best home winning streak to 37 games, and the team improved to 21-0 in season openers under Bluder.
Both Iowa and UNI are still positioned for big seasons as they go their separate ways. Here’s how they could fare moving forward.
Clark is the promised X factor, Goodman will be key off the bench
For all four of Iowa’s freshmen, Wednesday night could be categorized as a solid debut. Not only did all four see playing time, but all four scored.
All eyes were on top-5 prospect Caitlin Clark in her college debut, though, and with a 27-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance, it’s safe to say she delivered on the initial hype surrounding her.
“We all know what an offensive threat she is. And honestly, we’ve been recruiting Caitlin for so long, we’ve been hoping for this day for a long time that we’d actually get to coach her,” Bluder said. “And so it was fun to have that happen.”
Despite Bluder’s and the team’s lauding of Clark as a pinpoint passer — which she showed off as well — it was her own offense that took center stage. Clark scored the game’s first four points and had 17 by halftime, all while keeping the game moving at a fast pace. The speed is something she said she was used to from her experience with club teams and USA Basketball, but admitted that the longer college court made her a little winded in the first half.
“I really think there’s just some stuff we can fine-tune, and she did great,” Czinano said. “She made a whole bunch of shots, had some amazing assists. I mean, she just had a really good all-around game. So I’m just really excited to have the rest of the season like that.”
Clark seemed to feel similarly, telling reporters postgame that her first collegiate outing went more or less just as she visualized it — even her 27 points.
“I set my goals pretty high,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m shocked, but it’s a good start to the season for sure.”
Freshman center Sharon Goodman also had a strong debut, scoring nine points and grabbing five rebounds in 13 minutes. After a season of not having a true backup center at all, usually subbing in power forwards for Czinano, her addition to Iowa’s rotation is a welcome one.
“It’s so nice to have her come in and sub for me, and I know I can really trust her when she’s out there,” Czinano said. “And she played amazing tonight, so I’m super pumped about it.”
Bluder, too, reiterated her excitement at the prospect of having such a reliable option off the bench for Czinano.
“Even though she’s a freshman, you can see how good she’s going to be,” Bluder said. “She is just a workhorse in there. She’s a fighter. She doesn’t back down to anybody.”
This kind of power off the bench — not just at the center position, but everywhere — will be crucial for the Hawkeyes moving forward. With a mostly-new starting lineup, and a team made up mostly of underclassmen anyway, the balance won’t be perfect right away.
It certainly wasn’t perfect Wednesday night, as a powerful start rather easily gave way to a weaker second quarter, as the Panthers went from being down 10 to taking the lead twice. A team that already gets a lot of its points from three, UNI took full advantage of Iowa’s spotty outside defense — an area where the Hawkeyes were in the middle of the pack nationwide last season — and went 4-for-8 in the quarter.
But the nature of young players is that they are imperfect, and that with proper coaching and ample practice time (including staying COVID-free, something Bluder praised the team for postgame), they will improve. Clark and Bluder both pointed out the former’s issues with turnovers — she had four on Wednesday — but were immediately confident that it would quickly be addressed.
“She really wants to learn,” Bluder said of Clark earlier this month. “She wants to get better. She asks questions. She comes in and watches film. I’ve been very, very pleased with how coachable she is and how much she understands she still has to learn.”
Playing without fans? It’s a mixed bag so far
Just like in this summer’s WNBA bubble, Iowa is playing all of its home games for the foreseeable future to no fans, with just the PA announcer and the socially-distanced benches providing all the background noise.
Both Bluder and the players acknowledged the lack of fans makes for a different environment, one they’ll have to get used to. But their takes are still as unique as their roles.
“I was excited to get going and to start another year and just play, but it didn’t feel the same,” Bluder said. “… It almost felt like a scrimmage. Like, you know, those early-season scrimmages that are closed scrimmages. That’s really what it felt more like.”
The reality that COVID-19 presents is that the University of Iowa athletic department does not plan to have fans in the stands for basketball games this season in an abundance of caution. It’s a smart decision, and the right one, but it presents a troubling prospect for Iowa in particular. More specifically, for Iowa’s now-37-game home winning streak.
Fans don’t dictate the skill level of a team, of course, but their presence isn’t nothing, either. Certainly, a number of Iowa’s statement wins last season — including against Princeton and ranked Maryland and Indiana — were at least partially driven by the average 6,657 fans that attended those games.
Still, after Wednesday’s game, Warnock pointed out that the fuel the team gets from each other offers the same kick as ever, as does some mental reconfiguring.
“Obviously, it’s different, but you don’t really notice it, I guess,” she said. “You kind of tune out the fans even when they’re in the stadium.
“I guess it was a difference, but it wasn’t something we couldn’t handle.”
UNI is still primed for a strong season — if it can get through a tough month
An opening loss to Iowa in Iowa City isn’t the worst way to start a season, but things won’t get easier for the Panthers. In addition to likely facing Drake twice in Missouri Valley Conference play (the Valley’s schedule is currently getting a reboot), UNI’s opponents over the next month include Creighton, No. 15 Iowa State and a home-and-home series with South Dakota State.
Picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference, one spot above Drake but by no means any safer — Drake soundly defeated Creighton on Wednesday and hosts Iowa next week, to offer two near-immediate comparisons — UNI returns all five of its top scorers from last season and four starters. Finley, who came off the bench Wednesday just as she did in last season’s meeting, delivered a team-high 22 points, while freshman Emerson Green added to the bench scoring with 11 points in her college debut.
Certainly, facing a team as strong in the paint as Iowa is will cause some problems — the Panthers were outscored there 50-34. But with 42 bench points, it’s clear that UNI will be able to, as it has in the recent past, rely on other players for scoring if what’s on the floor isn’t working. Green, for instance, converted a team-high three 3-pointers, one of the major sources of offense for a smaller team (last season, the Panthers averaged more than eight 3s per game).
As ever, for UNI, this season will be about maintaining consistency, taking advantage of its strengths and continuing to pick up signature wins. A second straight sweep of the Iowa schools may not be in the cards for the Panthers this time, but that doesn’t mean the future can’t bring even more success to outshine this initial drawback.