IOWA CITY, Iowa – In her 16th season as the Iowa women’s basketball coach, Lisa Bluder has built a program to admire on and off the court.
Iowa is the only team in the Big Ten, and one of just 10 in NCAA Division I women’s basketball, to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in each of the past eight seasons. There are 349 Division I teams.
Bluder’s players also graduate at a rate of perfection, considering that student-athletes who have played under her and completed their eligibility have a 100 percent job placement following their career, and all of them have earned their degrees.
The only thing Bluder hasn’t done is lift Iowa to elite status. She was close in each of the past two seasons when Iowa combined for a 53-17 record, including three victories in the NCAA Tournament.
But the gap between being real good and elite still exists as fans saw on Sunday as eighth-ranked Maryland defeated Iowa 76-56 before an announced attendance of 7,776 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The lopsided defeat ended Iowa’s 25-game home-court winning streak and served notice that Maryland is probably the best team in the conference again.
Iowa, which was coming off an 82-75 loss at Michigan on Thursday, never led against Maryland, committed 16 turnovers and only made 21-of-55 field-goal attempts, including 2-of-11 from 3-point range.
Some of Iowa’s turnovers were unforced, but some also were caused by Maryland’s pressure defense, which is fueled by Maryland’s speed, quickness and size.
“I mean, they’re an athletic team,” Bluder said of the Terrapins, who are coached by Cedar Rapids native Brenda Frese. “But we’ve seen athletic teams before. We have to compete against it. They’re in our conference, so we better be prepared to handle that type of athleticism and quickness.
“So we can’t use it as an excuse. We just have to get better at it.”
Iowa has lost nine of its last 10 games against top-10 opponents. That trend has to end in order for the Hawkeyes to narrow the gap.
It’s easy to see why Frese resigned as the Minnesota head coach after just one season in 2002 to accept the same job at Maryland.
Coaching the Gophers is a pretty good gig, but it isn’t the same as coaching at Maryland.
For reasons that include geography and tradition, the Maryland job is one of the best in women’s collegiate basketball. Frese realized that or she probably wouldn’t have left Minnesota after just one season.
She now has Maryland competing at an elite level, thanks to her tenacity, her knowledge, but more than anything, her recruiting.
Maryland’s talent usually compares favorably with every team in the country not named Connecticut.
The current team is loaded with future WNBA players such as guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and power forward Brionna Jones. They scored 19 and 15 points, respectively, in Sunday’s game. Jones also grabbed 11 rebounds and had four steals.
“Maryland is obviously a tremendous team,” Bluder said. “I just want to congratulate them. It’s a Final Four program the last two years.”
In addition to making the Final Four in each of the past two seasons, Frese also led Maryland to the national title in 2006.
The Terrapins belong in a group with about seven or eight other teams that could be labeled as being elite.
Division I women’s basketball can be divided into three groups of successful programs. The first group is actually just one team, Connecticut. The second group has about eight or nine elite teams, including Maryland, while the third group has about 15 or 20 good teams, including Iowa.
We saw the difference between being good and being elite on Sunday. It never felt like Maryland was in danger of losing the game.
Maryland not only had the edge in talent, it also had extra motivation with the 45-year old Frese being a Cedar Rapids native. The Maryland players were determined to make this trip a happy homecoming for their head coach.
They saw where she grew up in Cedar Rapids and then saw to it that Maryland would prevail.
“I thought we played for her,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “Coming back to her home and just putting on a show for her and playing for her. And that’s what I thought we did a great job at.”
Frese could sense during the game that her players were on a family-fueled mission.
“It was really cool you could feel that the whole game,” she said. “And I think they were able to kind of feel and see that it’s about family to us. And they got to see a ton a family in this stretch.
“It was neat to be able to see just how hard they played. And I think that’s what separates this team that we play for each other.”
Bluder’s teams also play for each other. That was apparent when seldom-used reserve center Nicole Smith made a basket late in the fourth quarter. The entire bench stood up and cheered despite Iowa trailing by double digits.
Iowa also has its share of talented players, including 6-foot junior Ally Disterhoft. The former Iowa City West standout scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds in Sunday’s game.
Iowa just doesn’t have enough talent to compete with Maryland. At least, that was the case on Sunday.
The good news for the Iowa players is that they won’t face many teams as talented as Maryland because there aren’t many.
Maryland is elite, a consensus top-10 program, while Iowa is a notch or two below. Erasing that gap is about all that remains for Bluder to accomplish.
But it won’t be easy, as we saw on Sunday.