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Coming into the season, there was a ton of buzz around Iowa women’s basketball. The Hawkeyes were ranked in the preseason Top 10. They had a Player of the Tear candidate in Caitlin Clark. And they had spent all off-season working on their biggest weakness: defense.

It’s safe to say the non-conference killed off some of that buzz. Iowa experienced multiple long pauses due to Covid, both within and outside of the program. When the Hawks did play, they lost three times, including a tough loss to rival Iowa State and a huge blown fourth quarter lead against IUPUI.

But conference play offered Iowa an opportunity to regroup. To put the non-conference behind them and prove that they’re still worthy of the preseason hype.  

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Their first opportunity to do so was at home against Northwestern. The Wildcats beat Iowa in both games last year, but were coming off an extended Covid break of their own.

The first quarter of game was back and forth. Northwestern jumped out to a 9-2 lead thanks to several Iowa turnovers. Iowa started to get back into the game once they took better care of the ball. But Iowa didn’t actually hold their first lead until the very last moment of the quarter, as a Gabbie Marshall three-pointer beat the buzzer to put Iowa up 20-18. The Hawks had five first quarter turnovers.

In the second quarter, it was Iowa’s turn to take advantage, thanks largely to defense. The Hawks switched to a 2-3 zone, and it caused Northwestern plenty of issues. The Wildcats had two long stretches in the quarter without a made basket. But offensively, Iowa kept turning the ball over, and Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock got into foul trouble, limiting Iowa’s scoring options. Northwestern got a couple baskets late, and Iowa’s halftime lead was just two points at 36-34.

Warnock and Czinano continued to battle foul trouble in the third quarter, and Northwestern got their offense going. They quickly regained the lead back in the quarter, and controlled things for most of the period, shooting 65% from the floor. The Northwestern lead was up to six before a late Clark basket cut that to 60-56 heading to the fourth quarter.

In the early fourth quarter, it just didn’t look like the game would go Iowa’s way. Northwestern consistently kept the lead at two possessions for a while, then extended the lead to seven points. But just as Northwestern looked like they had the momentum, Iowa rallied and scored seven consecutive points to tie the game with a couple minutes to play.

Iowa then got the ball back with a chance to take the lead, but instead gave up a steal and run-out basket to Northwestern. The Wildcats never trailed again. Northwestern shut Iowa down defensively in the final few minutes and won 77-69.

Clark led Iowa with 30 points and 5 assists. She had another decent game, but had just three points in the fourth quarter, and shot just 1/8 from three-point range. Her three-point shooting continues to be perhaps this team’s greatest mystery. Last year, she shot over 40% from three. This year, she’s barely over 24%.

Czinano finished with 20 points and 6 rebounds. She was effective when she was in the game, but spent large portions of the second and third quarter on the bench in foul trouble. Warnock was the final Hawkeye in double-figures with 14 points. She hit four three-pointers in the game, but also sat some in foul trouble before fouling out late. A box score for the game is here.

Lack of Production at the 2 and 3

Tonight Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin, Tomi Taiwo, and Kylie Feuerbach played 93 total minutes. Their state combined stat line went: 5 points (on 2/15 shooting), 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 8 turnovers.

Needless to say, Iowa isn’t going to win many games with so little production in so many minutes played. Iowa’s players at the 2 and 3 don’t have to lead the team in scoring or fill up the stat line, but they do need to do a whole lot better than they did tonight.

Effort Issues

Throughout the last two seasons, three issues have plagued Iowa in most of its losses: 1) Defense, 2) Defensive rebounding, 3) Turnovers. All three more or less come down to effort.

I actually do think Iowa’s defense has been better this season. But there are still chunks of time where Iowa’s defensive effort just isn’t there and opponents score in bunches. That happened in the third quarter especially today, and that was when the game swung decisively in Northwestern’s favor.

Height and athleticism certainly play a big role in rebounding, but so too does effort, both in committing to box out every play and in attacking the ball once it comes off the rim. Teams that lack size and athleticism can still rebound well if they are willing to outwork their opponents. Unfortunately, Iowa consistently doesn’t give the necessary effort to grab rebounds, and they consistently lose rebounding battles as a result.

Some turnovers will naturally happen in games, especially against athletic and defensively focused teams like Northwestern. But Iowa consistently has a number of turnovers each game that are due to laziness. Not paying attention on a pass or throwing the ball away. Dribbling into bad situations. Not staying set on screens.

That these turnovers are still happening in year two for a team with nearly the same rotation as last year shows that the Iowa players and coaches haven’t focused enough attention on eliminating them.

If Iowa wants to take the next step many expected, it starts with effort. Staying locked in defensively the whole game. Making a commitment to boxing out and attacking the ball. And eliminating as many careless turnovers as possible.

Next Up

Iowa returns to action this Sunday, January 9th at 1 PM CT on the road at Nebraska. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

The Huskers are 13-1 on the season, and 2-1 in conference play. They faced a fairly weak non-conference schedule, and their only loss on the season is at Michigan State (a team Iowa beat fairly easily a month ago). But the Huskers recently beat #8 Michigan by 21 and are in their best form in years. This will be a difficult matchup for Iowa.