IOWA CITY — As the Iowa Hawkeyes shoot for their third straight women’s basketball win, Lisa Bluder’s message to her team is this:
Be sharp in a dull environment.
“We have to bring our own excitement and our own joy, because it’s kind of a dull place to play,” Bluder said Thursday after the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes (13-4 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) defeated Michigan 75-61.
Iowa’s next opponent is Illinois (9-8, 1-5). Tipoff is 2 p.m. Sunday at State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
There are difficult places to play, because of the noise and atmosphere. State Farm brings its own challenges — a lack of noise and a lack of atmosphere.
Perennially one of the Big Ten’s bottom teams, the Illini are drawing 1,369 fans per game this season.
The folks in Champaign are promoting Sunday as Pack The House Day with free admission, but don’t count on it.
Still, for whatever reason, the Illini are a tough draw for Iowa in Champaign, beating the Hawkeyes there three of the last four times.
Even Iowa’s Sweet 16 team of 2014-15 lost to the Illini on the road.
The Hawkeyes shouldn’t have difficulty mustering energy. They’ve won two straight games, and a win Sunday would set up a showdown Wednesday in Iowa City with league-leading Rutgers.
“That would be a great opportunity for us,” Bluder said. “But we don’t want the team thinking about that. Bad things happen when you do that. So it’s only Illinois right now.”
Defense isn’t usually a trademark for the Hawkeyes, but they have clamped down on opponents recently. They yielded just 23 points in the second half at Minnesota, rallying from an eight-point deficit to win, 81-63.
Then, Thursday, they held Michigan to 1-of-15 shooting from 3-point range.
“Our guards are playing the screens better, and we’re contesting (outside) shots better because we’re able to be there.”
Alex Wittinger, a 6-foot-1 senior forward, is Illinois’ top player, averaging 15.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
Former Iowa City High standout Courtney Joens, a junior, has made 10 starts this season and adds 6.5 points per contest.
Iowa’s Megan Gustafson leads the nation in points per game (26.1) and double-doubles (16). She is second in field-goal percentage (.699) and third in rebounds per game (13.1).
The Hawkeyes are second nationally in assists (22.3 per game).
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