IOWA CITY — For Kathleen Doyle, “the most wonderful time of the year” has arrived.
It consists of ball, and that’s about all.
“It’s the best thing ever,” she said. “During the school year, you have a rhythm of class and practice and games. Now we get a chance to relax and focus on basketball. That makes it really fun.”
Finals are finished, and class doesn’t resume at the University of Iowa until Jan. 14. The beginning of the Big Ten women’s basketball season is two weeks away, and the current focus is the pursuit of a mythical state championship.
The 15th-ranked Hawkeyes (7-2) host Northern Iowa (5-3) at 2 p.m. Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I love the in-state games,” said junior Makenzie Meyer, a native of Mason City. “They’re always close games.”
Unlike the state’s men’s basketball status, in which the home-floor round-robin format between the state’s four Division-I programs has been replaced by the Hy-Vee Classic — and soon to be de-emphasized further — the Iowa women still play all of the other three intrastate rivals.
The Hawkeyes fired the state’s first salvo of the season, defeating Iowa State, 73-70. It was their fourth consecutive Big Four win.
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“This is step two,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “We’re well-rested and we’re ready to go.”
The Iowa-UNI rivalry has been a one-sided one, with the Hawkeyes winning 21 of 23 matchups with the Panthers, including 11 straight. The Hawkeyes earned a 71-47 decision last year in Cedar Falls, but lost Tania Davis to an ACL injury in the process.
This year, it is UNI that has been stung by injury. The Panthers’ best post, junior Megan Maahs, is out for the season with a torn ACL.
“That really hurts them,” Bluder said. “They don’t have the experience inside now, so they’re going to attack us with the 3-ball.”
The Panthers’ chief outside threats are Karli Rucker and Ellie Howell, who average 16.1 and 11.9 points per game, respectively.
Iowa’s Megan Gustafson is 80 points away from Ally Disterhoft’s career scoring mark. Gustafson is averaging 24.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, shooting 75 percent from the floor.
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