IOWA CITY, Iowa — Before a modest but festive crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes took the court to open their highly-anticipated season against the Jaguars of Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After an offseason of intense reflection and recharging, the time had finally come for the Hawkeyes to begin to prove that they belong on the national stage.
The expectations coming into this season are enormous. They are coming off a resounding season in which they were the Big Ten regular season and tournament champions as well as enduring a heartbreaking defeat in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament against Creighton on their home court. Obviously a moment that is seared into their collective memory but one that they are looking to not be defined by.
In addition, they have their core group back in full swing and ready for the challenge under the guidance of head coach Lisa Bluder. That group includes of course their junior sensation Caitlin Clark whose resume speaks for itself and who’s destined for even bigger things this year. Their powerful and reliable center Monika Czinano is back for her fifth and final season as her stature continues to grow. The trio of Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin, and McKenna Warnock round out their stellar starting offense with efficient playmaking and shooting.
With the addition of a few transfers, a relatively healthier bench, and a renewed focus, the Hawkeyes are poised for greatness this year but it starts with the first game.
From the start, the Hawkeyes wasted no time. They moved the ball around, got to the glass, looked for the open shot, were scrappy on defense, and fittingly it was Clark who hit the first basket of the season. Through the first three minutes, the Hawkeyes were overall tentative and still looking to find their footing and understandably so.
But then at the 6:53 mark, dead silence fell over Carver as Clark fell to the floor. In clear pain, she was pounding her hand on the court and had to be helped off limping and ushered back into the training room. The last thing anyone could have expected on opening night.
A spark was desperately needed and everyone wondered who was going to light it?
At 6:44, Czinano got the crowd back in with a hard-fought basket resulting in an extra point and giving Iowa a 7-2 lead.
However, Southern took advantage of the brief missing presence of Clark as best they could. They were clearly outmatched in every aspect but they were able to keep the Hawkeyes offense at bay as they weren’t converting on shots that they would normally make either beyond the arc or inside. Their defense was tougher than most had thought and at various times the Hawkeyes had to generate points at the free throw line. Thus the first quarter was shaping up to be one that was very low scoring. With 4:53 left Iowa led 8-5.
But after a full timeout, Clark walked back onto the court to thunderous applause and soon thereafter the Hawkeye defense forced the Jaguars into a traveling violation, seemingly a boost. However, that didn’t change the entirety of the dynamic that was established as the Jaguar’s defense still did an effective job at preventing the ignition of an offensive onslaught and in particular closing the lane.
At 2:40, Aaliyah Fontentot hit a three pointer to bring the Jaguars within one point at 11-10. At 2:14, Czinano followed up and gave the Hawkeyes a three point lead at 13-10 and gave her 8 points.
At 1:19, Marshall scored her first point on a driving basket from the left side of the court to put the Hawkeyes up 15-10 and that is how the quarter ended.
At the start of the second quarter, the hope was that the Hawkeyes were able to get those first game jitters out and regather. Now that they got a feel for the Jaguars that they were able to unleash their real power and take over.
At 9:07, it was none other than Clark to do just that as she hit a three to make it 18-10. She quickly followed up with another gem as only she could to give her 9 points and a 21-10 lead with 8:26 left.
It was on from there as the Hawkeyes’ confidence was officially restored. At 7:53, who else but Clark scored three more points at the free throw line to make it 24-10. Their defense was in tact as well as they went back to crashing the boards with fierce intensity and forcing the Jaguars into one turnover after another.
A remarkable sequence soon followed. At 6:21, Warnock got in on the action as she scored her first basket of the game on a three to make it 27-10. Then at 5:46, Kate Martin, donning a Rip Hamilton style mask, hit it from yonder for her first basket as well and made it 30-10, capping off a 15-0 run dating back to the end of the first quarter.
The Hawkeyes were in complete command of the game as expected and it was only up from there. At 5:20, the Jaguars ended their drought with two free throws by freshman guard Sirviva Legions but the game was far beyond their control. It was during this time that the Iowa bench came to help and it was clear that they were comfortable enough to be able to contribute in a major way.
At 4:07, senior and Central Michigan transfer Molly Davis got on the board with a driving spin move to the basket just as the shot clock was about to go off. Then at 3:03, Addison O’Grady hit a three to make it 37-13.
As the quarter wound down, the bench was continuing to make it happen. At 1:08 it was sophomore/redshirt center Sharon Goodman who scored in the paint and followed up with a free throw. With 46 seconds left, freshman and redshirt Shateah Wetering hit a three to join the party and conclude a spectacular run of sustained dominance.
The second quarter ended exactly as many would anticipate the overall outcome to be, a complete blowout with Iowa leading 43-15.
The third quarter was bound to be anticlimactic. It was the beginning of what was a sure Iowa win and that was that. Clark kicked things off by scoring in the paint off a feed by Czinano to put the Hawkeyes up by 30 at 45-15, which gave her 16 points.
As the quarter went on, it was becoming clear that a pattern had developed as the Hawkeyes were able to render the Jaguars scoreless for half the quarter just as they did in the second. At 5:57, the Hawkeyes led 53-15 and were on a 9-0 run.
At 5:26, Czinano found Martin in the paint on a good feed to make it officially a 40 point lead for the Hawkeyes at 55-15.
For the remainder of the quarter, the bench took over the majority of playing time as the starters were granted an extended breather. Their synergy and trust in one another were evident with excellent ball movement, playmaking, and finding the open looks when they could.
At the end of the 3rd, the Hawkeyes built the lead to 67-23.
The 4th quarter was simply a matter of playing until the final whistle blew. The Hawkeyes were all smiles as they walked and a sense of relief was felt as they were able to start off the season as they had wanted to. The starters got back out there with two goals in mind. One to obviously increase the lead but second to continue setting an example for the others to follow, which is to continue playing as a unit whether up by 40 points or in a back and forth battle.
When the final buzzer sounded, the crowd had largely faded as it was almost approaching 10:30 p.m. due to the men’s game that preceded in which they won convincingly to open their season over Bethune-Cookman. To add to their joy, their Lady Hawkeyes showed up and showed out with a dominating opening night victory, 87-34.
A great showing by not only the usual suspects but by the newcomers.
Clark had 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 1 assist. Czinano had 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists. Stuelke had 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 assist. McCabe had 9 points, 1 rebound, and 1 assist. Davis had 7 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists. Marshall had 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist.
Afterwards, Coach Bluder spoke with glee of the newbies.
“There is no doubt that they are gonna contribute right away,” she said. “Molly just gives us that depth at the point guard and someone that really wants to play point guard which we haven’t had in a while so that is really exciting for us. Hannah you can just see the athleticism ooze out of her. It is so much fun to watch her play and she is so coachable and she wants to get better. Taylor, she’s got a quick release on that shot, it’s really fun to watch. Those three had really good nights.”
Given all the hype surrounding the Hawkeyes, Clark spoke about the importance of perspective and taking it one game at a time.
“That is something we talk about every single day,” she said. “We always say go 1-0, it’s never what happened in the past, it’s never who we’re playing down the road, it’s always who we’re playing today. Now our focus turns to Evansville, but that has been Coach Bluder’s philosophy. We treat every one just as important as the next, but at the same time not every game is gonna be pretty, we are gonna have to find a way to win ugly.”
Iowa (1-0) will be back at home on Thursday against Evansville (1-0) at 6:30 p.m. CST.