Iowa Women's Basketball

Drake has been a mid-major headache for major women's basketball programs this season

Among the Bulldogs' victims is 2017 NCAA champ South Carolina

Drake women’s basketball coach Jennie Baranczyk talks to her team during a timeout in their game with Iowa in 2014. The Bulldogs host the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes on Friday. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Drake women’s basketball coach Jennie Baranczyk talks to her team during a timeout in their game with Iowa in 2014. The Bulldogs host the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes on Friday. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Other than its conference affiliation, there’s not much “mid-major” about the Drake women’s basketball team.

The Bulldogs (8-3) spent three weeks in the coaches’ top 25 before dropping out last week. They have beaten four teams from major conferences, including 2017 NCAA champion South Carolina.

Their RPI is 8. Their strength of schedule is 9.

“I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of what we can be,” Bulldogs Coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “We’ve got to continue to schedule tough.”

In addition to their overtime conquest of South Carolina (Nov. 24, in the third-place game of the Vancouver Showcase), the Bulldogs have road victories over Nebraska and Creighton and a neutral-site win over Rutgers. Among their losses: Notre Dame, the defending national champion and a five-pointer Sunday at Iowa State.

So they won’t be quaking when 15th-ranked Iowa (8-2) comes to the Knapp Center for a 6 p.m. game Friday. As of Tuesday, less than 1,000 tickets remained; the arena seats 7,152.

Iowa will be looking to complete a sweep of its three in-state rivals; the Hawkeyes have recorded victories over ISU (73-70) and Northern Iowa (83-57).

Hawkeyes Coach Lisa Bluder annually says that she doesn’t particularly enjoy coaching against the Bulldogs. There are added factors there — she coached at Drake for 10 seasons (1990-2000), compiling a 187-106 record and four NCAA tournaments.

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Plus, there’s the Bluder/Baranczyk dynamic. As Jennie Lillis, Baranczyk played for Bluder at Iowa from 2000 through 2004, and ranks seventh in career points (1,762), ninth in rebounds (827) and ninth in steals (190).

As far as playing against Bluder and her alma mater, Baranczyk said, “I don’t necessarily like it ... I don’t necessarily like playing any of the other three in-state teams, but I respect the heck out of all of them.

“I love all four teams playing each other, and I want to continue the home-and-homes. They listed the attendance at Iowa State at almost 11,000 Sunday. That’s incredible.”

Like Bluder did before her, Baranczyk has lifted Drake out of a down spell.

After an 11-20 mark in her first season, Drake climbed to 17-15 in Year 2, and has followed with four straight seasons of 20-plus wins, including 28-5 and 26-8 in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Those last two seasons featured unbeaten Missouri Valley Conference campaigns and NCAA Tournament appearances.

Baranczyk called Drake’s system “unique.” Nine players are scoring at least 4 points per game, led by junior Sara Rhine (18.9 points, 8.3 rebounds per game), who hadn’t even cracked the starting lineup until the last week.

Junior Becca Hittner is the reigning MVC player of the year and averages 16.5 points.

“We play a lot of people. Our depth has helped,” Baranczyk said. “We want to continue to reload and have people come in and be comfortable.”

Former North Linn prep Nicole Miller averages 5.6 points per game. Freshman Allie Wooldridge (Center Point-Urbana) has played in seven games.

Friday’s game figures to be easy on the eyes. Drake ranks second in the nation in assists per game (22.3), and Iowa is third (22.2). The Bulldogs have depth and 3-point shooters from every angle. Iowa, of course, has Megan Gustafson, who averages 24.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, and leads the nation in field-goal percentage (.754).

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“We’re watching film, and see people play her a lot of different ways, and she still finds a way,” Baranczyk said. “She moves so well, positions herself so well.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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