Opinion | A surprising departure: Iowa women’s basketball season in review

Assistant Sports Editor Chloe Peterson offers her final thoughts on the Hawkeyes’ abrupt, season-ending loss


Grace Smith

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark looks to pass during a 2022 NCAA Second Round women’s basketball game between No. 2 Iowa and No. 10 Creighton in sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, March 20, 2022. Clark had 11 assists. The Bluejays defeated the Hawkeyes, 64-62, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.

Chloe Peterson, Assistant Sports Editor

The 2021-22 Iowa women’s basketball team was one of the most anticipated in program history, and it all fell flat last Sunday.

The Hawkeyes, ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press preseason poll, had a rocky regular season. But Iowa redeemed itself when it mattered most, winning both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles in 2022.

Iowa was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, hosting its first two games at a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes were primed to make a deep run into March. All Iowa had to do was take down the No. 15 and No. 10 seed in the Greensboro region.

But the Hawkeyes found themselves on the ugly side of an upset.

With the 2021-22 Iowa women’s basketball season officially in the rearview mirror, four questions crossed my mind:

How bad was Iowa’s second round loss on Sunday?

Well, pretty bad. Iowa was the No. 2 seed, on their home court in a sold-out crowd, and favored by 10.5 points. Creighton was the No. 10 seed that had never made it to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in the history of the program.

Former Hawkeye Lauren Jensen made sure that the Bluejays made it. Jensen, who transferred from Iowa to Creighton ahead of the 2021-22 season, scored 19 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer with 12 seconds left in the game — one that sucked all the life out of the Hawkeyes and 14,382 fans in the building.

The Hawkeyes’ early exit from the NCAA Tournament was eerily similar to their loss to mid-major IUPUI in late December. Iowa was playing an opponent it should’ve easily defeated on its home court, but the Hawkeyes kept the game too close for comfort, leading to a last second, desperate comeback attempt.

It didn’t work either time.

RELATED: Home court heartbreak: Iowa women’s basketball stunned by Creighton in second round of NCAA Tournament

The final play call, even, was almost identical in each instance. An inbounded ball to senior center Monika Czinano went awry and bounced off the rim. The Hawkeyes got the offensive rebound, but the layup at the buzzer jumped off the backboard. And, most importantly, the Hawkeyes lost.

“I had a hook shot,” Czinano said postgame. “I’ve shot a million hook shots in my life and that one happened to not go in.”

The final dagger for this early exit is that this Iowa team looked like it was better than the 2018-19 Hawkeyes — the ones who made the Elite Eight. Iowa got an upgrade from Megan Gustafson (who plays in the WNBA) in Caitlin Clark. Iowa brought its entire starting lineup back for a second season in 2021-22. The Hawkeyes won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles for the first time in program history.

Yet, Iowa couldn’t make it past the first weekend.

“I think there’s a lot of exciting basketball ahead for this group, but obviously the feeling of letting them down, letting the coaches down, our teammates down, it stinks right now,” Clark said.
But I think overall, just more fuel for us going into next year.”

What will returning all five starters do?

Iowa’s postgame press conference was not a fun one to sit through, but there was one common theme: the Hawkeyes will return all five starters for their third season together, and they will be better than ever.

“Obviously we’re frustrated, we’re disappointed, we’re sad, but we have our core coming back,” Clark said. “I think that’s something bright to look forward to, as well.”

In 2020-21, the Hawkeyes said the same thing. But, one year later, Iowa exited the tournament a round earlier with the same five people on the court.

I don’t see head coach Lisa Bluder making any major changes to her starting lineup. It’s worked for her the past two seasons and won her a Big Ten Tournament title.

Clark will return as the de-facto head of the group. She leads the nation with 27 points and eight assists per game, while adding on eight rebounds. Clark, at times, single-handedly willed the Hawkeyes to a victory. She isn’t going anywhere.

And where Clark goes, Czinano follows.

Czinano, who was the only possible departure from the starting five after the 2021-22 season, will return for her fifth year with Iowa women’s basketball in 2022-23. The senior captain is one of the most efficient posts in the country, leading the nation with a 67.8 field goal percentage. Czinano also averaged 21.2 points per game.

Junior forward McKenna Warnock was the third Hakweye to average double-digit points in the 2021-22 season. Warnock, another captain, put up 11.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Junior guards Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall round out the Hawkeyes’ experienced starting five with 7.2 and 6.8 points a game, respectively.

Something has to give with Iowa’s starters. But what? Or who?

Offensively, Marshall is the least effective. She averaged just 1.8 rebounds per game, compared to Martin’s 4.9. But Marshall spearheaded the Hawkeyes’ defensive effort with a team-leading 50 steals.

Right now, it seems like Iowa’s starters have plateaued. But if the Hawkeyes have one more season with their core. If they want to get past the Sweet 16 next season, they’ll have to improve — especially on defense.

Was Iowa’s defense actually better in 2021-22?

A reoccurring statistic in Iowa’s 2020-21 season showed its lack of defensive ability. The Hawkeyes sat last in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 80.3 points per game.

And that was glaring in Iowa’s 92-72 loss to UConn in the 2021 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

After the Hawkeyes’ Sweet 16 loss, they made defense an emphasis in summer and fall workouts leading up to the 2021-22 season.

“I think the team just understands the importance of it,” Bluder said on March 17. “We talked about how, last year we got to the Sweet 16 with a really, really good offense but a pretty poor defense. And if we want to go farther, which all these women want to do, then we had to improve the defense.”

Did Iowa’s defense actually improve in 2021-22? Sure. Marginally.

Instead of 336th out of 336 teams, Iowa finished the 2021-22 season 306th out of 348 teams, allowing 70.2 points per game.

A 10-point difference in one year, with the same starters and the same offensive philosophy, is nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s still not enough for Iowa to compete with the best of the best.

Iowa was under its average when it lost to Creighton, 64-62. But the Bluejays’ five-guard offense — something uncommon in the Big Ten — threw the Hawkeyes off. Creighton had almost free reign of the 3-point line, making 10 shots on 34 attempts.

The Hawkeyes catered their defensive abilities to the Big Ten, and that helped them gain two conference titles. But their inability to adjust defense ultimately kicked them out of March.

What does Iowa need to do to be successful in 2022-23?

To have a successful regular season, and make a deep run in March, the Hawkeyes will need to find whatever mental block they have on the defensive end of the ball and squash it.

Iowa is second in the nation with an average of 84.2 points per game. That aspect needs very little assistance.

The Hawkeyes are losing senior Tomi Taiwo, one of their best defensive players. Taiwo had 23 steals coming off the bench in the 2021-22 season.

“She gives us a good defensive spark,” Bluder said March 18. “I feel like she just has added so much to our bench play.”

With Taiwo’s departure, Iowa does have three four-star recruits joining the program for the 2022-23 season. Hannah Stuelke and Taylor McCabe were the Iowa and Nebraska Gatorade Players of the Year, respectively.

Jada Gyamfi will be one of the tallest Hawkeyes on the roster at 6-foot-2. She averaged 13.7 points and 7.6 rebounds in her junior season at Johnston in 2020-21.

“I’m just really proud of this team,” Bluder said March 20. “I mean, the exciting thing is we return everybody from our starting lineup, and that’s exciting. We have three great recruits coming in.”

The Hawkeyes will be fine on offense. They always are. But Iowa’s 2022-23 defense will either help the Hawkeyes rise to new heights — or make them sink.

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