March 29, 2024 

Colorado and Iowa reflect on their second time around in NCAA Tournament

Lisa Bluder: 'I'm sure they're looking forward to this rematch'

ALBANY, N.Y. — Even amid all the conference changes across women’s college basketball, Colorado and Iowa aren’t about to cross paths regularly. Colorado is headed to the Big 12 next season after an extended stay in the Pac-12, while Iowa is a cornerstone of the ever-expanding Big Ten. But the two teams faced each other just last season in eerily similar circumstances to now.

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Iowa’s trip to the 2023 Final Four included an 87-77 win over Colorado in the Round of 16 in Seattle. To return in 2024, the Hawkeyes will need to do that once more on Saturday in Albany.

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“We had the whole team watch the film from last year, so they kind of have it in their mind, in addition to film from this year,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder told reporters on Friday afternoon. “Neither team has changed. I know they’re a little bit different, but neither team has changed a lot with their style of play.

“They only lost one starter, we lost two starters, and I think they replaced theirs with Maddie Nolan — like I said, a really good player. This is a very experienced group. You’re looking at three grad students and a senior in the starting lineup. Both teams are pretty experienced. I’m sure they’re looking forward to this rematch from last year.”

Bluder is right, in the general shape of attack and defensive matchups. Graduate student guard Jaylyn Sherrod runs the ship for the Buffaloes, returning to try and take her team beyond the Sweet 16 this season. And senior star Caitlin Clark, you may have heard, is still Iowa’s engine.

Still, the Hawkeyes present a different challenge in the middle, with a three-headed monster led by sophomore Hannah Stuelke in place of Monika Czinano, a three-time First Team All-Big Ten selection whose 15 points were critical in last year’s Iowa win.

“We’ve seen all Hannah can do,” Clark told reporters on Friday. “She put up 47 points [against Penn State on Feb. 8]. She can absolutely dominate. In my opinion, she runs the floor better than anybody in the country. But I think that is the biggest thing, is saying that right to her face. And she knows how much I believe in her and how much the rest of the team believes in her, because when she’s playing her best basketball, it adds a whole other dimension to our team.

Lisa Bluder smiles as she speaks to media at a podium in Albany.
Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder answers questions during a press conference prior to the Sweet 16 at MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y., on March 28, 2024. Photo credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)

“I think that’s been the thing for us all year is just continue to build her up, continue to build our posts up, because they kind of had to play behind the shadow of Monika, but they aren’t Monika. They can do a lot of things that Monika couldn’t, and they don’t need to be Monika.”

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Colorado, too, doesn’t need to be West Virginia, which gave Iowa all it could handle in the second round before falling 64-54. Colorado is instead living up to the standard that head coach JR Payne set for her team a year ago and looking to raise it again. The Buffaloes have managed to improve on such things as defensive rebounding rate, jumping from 62nd nationally last season to 11th this year, and from 76th in offensive efficiency last year to 28th this year. But it will take a win over Iowa to beat the top line of last season.

“I think every coach wants to continue to grow your program. Your players want to continue to prove themselves or outdo whatever they had accomplished the year before,” Payne said on Friday. “I think this is a great opportunity for that on a big stage against a great team. Of course we’re trying to keep playing as long as we can.”

Iowa played fast from the start of Clark’s career and has increased its pace in each of her four seasons, ranking 14th in the country entering Friday’s games. But West Virginia held the Hawkeyes to their slowest pace of the season and very nearly ended the final run of Clark and Gabbie Marshall before it even exited the state of Iowa.

The Buffaloes watched the film, of course. But they don’t sound like they’re looking to emulate the Mountaineers.

“I don’t think we play at a slow pace,” Sherrod said on Friday. “I think we like to push it in transition and run our offense and stuff like that. I think when we’re able to get out in transition, we’re pretty good at that. It’s just we have so many weapons that it just opens up the floor for everybody. I think we’re at our best in transition, so I don’t think it’s any, I guess, different mentality going into this game about slowing the game down. It’s just we’re going to go out there and try to do what we do, which is push in transition and play at our pace. That’s the plan.”

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Indeed, the Buffaloes have actually increased their pace in each of the past two seasons, ranking 127th of 360 teams in pace this season after checking in at 297th in 2021-22. However, West Virginia sits at 73rd this season yet found it necessary to reduce possessions against an Iowa team with the highest points per possession in the country.

And Iowa knows the more opportunities it has to score, the better off it’ll be. Bluder even alluded to a counterintuitive way to establish that early.

“West Virginia really tried to slow it down, and they did a nice job with it,” Bluder said. “They did a really good job with it. Again, their defense was very good. I think not having to get the ball to Caitlin sounds like a funny thing to speed the game up, but [it] might be an opportunity for us, to not get her the ball right off the bat, get her into a shooting position instead of a ball-handling position where they want to pick her up.”

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The Hawkeyes will have to do it without starting guard Molly Davis, in all likelihood, as Bluder pronounced Davis doubtful for this one due to injury. And they’ll do it with the weight of expectations on all them, a vulnerability that Clark acknowledged amid her unparalleled star turn and the daily attention that’s included. She makes sure to take a moment just before the national anthem and look around, to be present as she signs as many autographs as possible after games. But it will end within the next two weeks, possibly as soon as Saturday.

“You don’t really know how many games you have left at this point,” Clark said. “We just had a practice, we play tomorrow, and that’s really all you’re guaranteed. You’re trying to go out there and win and fight for another day, and … we don’t want this to end. We love coming to practice. We love playing games with each other. You want to soak it in and keep extending it.”

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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