IOWA CITY — This was a novel, an unexpectedly good read.
Until the dog ran away with the final chapter.
For four months, the University of Iowa women’s basketball team delighted in providing the element of surprise.
“Any time you can prove somebody wrong, it’s a lot of fun,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said Thursday, shortly before the NCAA pulled the plug on the remainder of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Nobody thought we were going to be any good.”
But the Hawkeyes were quite good. They compiled a 23-7 record, finishing third in the Big Ten at 14-4.
Despite losses in their last two games — at Rutgers in the regular-season finale and an 88-67 clunker against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals — Iowa was a likely No. 4 seed for the NCAA tournament before it was canceled. That would have meant home court, where the Hawkeyes have won 36 straight games, the second-longest active streak in the nation.
That streak now will stretch into next season.
Iowa was coming off a 29-7 season in 2019, winning the Big Ten tournament and reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. But the Hawkeyes lost consensus national player of the year Megan Gustafson to graduation, along with Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart.
In terms of scoring punch, nobody in the Big Ten lost more.
Hopes didn’t exactly skyrocket early. Surely not when the Hawkeyes went to Cedar Falls and got trampled by 22 points to Northern Iowa in the third game of the season.
Things started to click by the end of the non-conference portion of the schedule, which included a win at Iowa State, the Hawkeyes’ fourth in a row in the series.
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Iowa lost its Big Ten opener to Nebraska, then answered with nine straight wins, including consecutive victories over Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin in which the Hawkeyes erased double-digit deficits.
The Hawkeyes shared the Big Ten lead until losing at Maryland on Feb. 13, then settled for third place, two games behind co-champions Maryland and Northwestern.
“To finish alone in third, that’s amazing from what was expected,” Bluder said. “I am so pleased with the effort of our seniors.”
Kathleen Doyle became Iowa’s third straight Big Ten player of the year (Gustafson won it in 2018 and 2019), finishing fifth in the nation with 6.3 assists per game. The high-energy point guard finishes second all-time at Iowa in career assists (706), fourth in steals (238) and No. 13 in points (1,537). A professional career, whether it’s in the WNBA, overseas or both, awaits.
Makenzie Meyer exits as one of the most prolific and accurate outside shooters in school history. She ranks fourth in 3-pointers (232), hitting 37.7 percent of her tries. She also ranks No. 4 in assists (437) and 24th in points (1,256). Meyer plans to attend dental school, perhaps at Iowa.
Cedar Rapids native Amanda Ollinger was a role player for three seasons, then blossomed as a senior. One of the top defensive players in the Big Ten, she is 10th all-time at Iowa in blocks (83). Ollinger already has a career path as an engineer at Collins Aerospace.
The seniors accounted for 51.1 percent of Iowa’s scoring output.
“We’re in the same situation as last year. We lose the Big Ten player of the year,” Bluder said. “But we can overcome it. We proved that this year.”
After a freshman season spent in Gustafson’s long shadow, Monika Czinano developed into an all-Big Ten post in her second year, averaging 16.0 points per game. Her 68-percent field-goal rate ranked second in the nation.
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Alexis Sevillian (6.7 ppg) is the other returning starter and one of two seniors next year (Zion Sanders is the other). Tomi Taiwo and Logan Cook join Czinano in next year’s junior class.
The strength of the team may be its sophomore and freshman classes. McKenna Warnock and Gabbie Marshall were the first two players off the bench in their rookie seasons, averaging 6.7 and 5.0 points per game, respectively. Kate Martin played in 24 games, Megan Meyer in 11.
Next year’s freshman class ranks among the top 15 in the nation by most sources and is led by Caitlin Clark, Miss Iowa Basketball 2020 and a McDonald’s All-American out of West Des Moines Dowling.
Crestwood’s Sharon Goodman and Montezuma’s Shateah Wetering also earned first-team all-state honors, and Lauren Jensen is a sharpshooter from Minnesota.
If you learned anything about the Hawkeyes this season, it’s not to underestimate them. They relish the underdog role. A realistic goal for 2020-21 is 20-22 wins, a top-half Big Ten finish and a return to the NCAA tournament.
“We can replicate what we did this year,” Bluder said.
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