IOWA CITY — This was no time or place for sentimentality Wednesday night.
Yes, Iowa briefly honored Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer before her women’s basketball team took on the Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Stringer got her 1,000th coaching win last November, and Iowa can claim 249 of them.
But Stringer hasn’t coached here in — do you believe this? — 24 years. She’s been at Rutgers twice as long as she was here.
Stringer is, was, and always will be regarded as the architect of the Hawkeyes’ women’s basketball program. She came here to turn a program no one cared about into a bit of a phenomenon, something that drew 22,157 fans for a Sunday afternoon game in 1985.
Iowa somehow slipped one past Johnson County’s fire marshal, holding an event with almost 7,000 more people than seats.
At any rate, there had been Stringer/Iowa reunions here, before and after Rutgers joined the Big Ten. Wednesday’s game was the essence of what Stringer and Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder have been about in their long, distinguished careers: Trying to take a step toward being their conference’s champion.
This night was Iowa’s. The 17th-ranked Hawkeyes earned a 72-66 win that put the first dent in No. 14 Rutgers’ conference record. Stringer’s Scarlet Knights had their 10-game winning streak snapped, and slipped to 7-1 in the Big Ten.
That’s still good enough for outright first place, but it put Iowa on their heels at 6-2.
“It’s huge,” said Hawkeye senior center Megan Gustafson, “especially since that’s our lone meeting with them. So that was very critical.”
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Gustafson scored Iowa’s first 13 points and finished with 32 on 13-of-16 shooting. She also had 12 rebounds. That would be in red ink were it almost any other player, but it was just another night for the pride of Port Wing, Wis.
Iowa has someone who could become the women’s Naismith Award winner for national player of the year. That assumes leading the nation in scoring (26.5 points per game) and being third in rebounding (13.0) is some sort of resume.
The Hawkeyes — and the Big Ten, for that matter — have never had anyone win that award. Gustafson scores and scores, and her team is 15-4. But Wednesday’s crowd was 6,035, and Iowa’s home average is 4,720.
There’s still time to catch the program’s 2019 version of a phenomenon. Like Sunday, when the Hawkeyes host another team in the league’s title mix, Purdue.
If Gustafson needs any sound bites to sway Naismith voters, she should start with Stringer’s postgame comments here.
“She’s the best that I’ve seen,” Stringer said. “She is truly the best center in the country, bar none.
“Long story short is they make pinpoint passes, she doesn’t drop the ball, and she knows exactly where to post up. She can blindly hit those shots.”
Iowa had 19 assists on 24 baskets, a through-the-roof ratio for some teams but not unusual for a Bluder team.
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Bluder has been at her current job for 19 years. Wednesday’s win was the 738th of her 35-year career. Again, “phenomenon” comes to mind.
Big Ten titles are harder to come by now than in Stringer’s era here when the league was led by Ohio State and Iowa, and everyone else was a little slower to build competitive programs. In fact, Ohio State beat Iowa in overtime in a 1993 Final Four semifinal.
Bluder’s teams keep putting up seasons of 20-plus wins, keep playing a highly entertaining brand of ball built on passing and a quick pace.
Rutgers is good. But this night, the Scarlet Knights got flustered and gave up the most points they’ve allowed all season.
“That was a really good win against a good opponent,” Bluder said, “so it feels good.”
Now Rutgers is 7-1 in the Big Ten and Iowa is 6-2, and that’s as sentimental as that gets. Except ...
“The fans were great, weren’t they?” Stringer said in her final words to reporters. “They always are.”
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