By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa women’s basketball team was showered with plaudits after winning the Big Ten Tournament on top of winning a share of the regular-season title. Caitlin Clark was the player of the year in the conference, and Monika Czinano was a first-team all-Big Ten selection. Since then Clark has been unanimously named a first-team All-America, while Czinano was honorable mention All-America.
But some of the more interesting social media comments following Iowa’s triumph came in reference to junior Kate Martin.
After the Big Ten title game Tania Davis, a 2019 Iowa grad, tweeted: “1 person I wish I could have played with is @kate_martin22. Straight dawg.”
Megan Gustafson tweeted “Kate Martin. Monika Czinano. HEROS.”
Zion Sanders (Iowa ’21): “HUGE s/o to @kate_martin22 for the way she played this past weekend. Major X factor for the success of that team bringing the extra toughness and leadership. Proud of you.”
“Wanting to play with Kate, who wouldn’t want to play with Kate,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “She is the epitome of a teammate as far as she’s going to look out for everybody else. She puts everybody else ahead of herself.”
Kate Martin averages seven points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists. She shoots 46 percent overall. Solid numbers to be sure. Only Caitlin Clark and McKenna Warnock play more minutes. But her teammates and coaches prize her play and her interactions much more highly than those statistics would indicate.
You need an inside screen to free a cutter? Call Martin. It’s not sexy, and it can get you leveled. It’s not something ordinary fans even see within the scrum in the lane. Just ask and Martin will give it a go.
She is versatile enough to play all five positions and has done so.
“I never met somebody so competitive until I got here,” Clark said. “We’re basically the same person.”
“She really makes our team what we are now,” Czinano said. “She really is the teammate you want on your team, and we’re so lucky to have her.”
“She is smart,” Bluder said. “She understands how to hold people accountable without tearing them down. She demands a lot out of herself, and so she leads by example. The team has so much trust in her.”
Martin gets it, not just the X’s and O’s, but the difficult chemistry issues and how to manage people, Bluder said. Martin’s father is a high school football coach, and Bluder believes he’s helped Martin understand and model the leadership she provides Iowa. Because of those traits Bluder believes Martin can be a coach at the highest level.
“I already told her my kids will play for Kate Martin,” Czinano said. “They don’t really have a choice. I’ve never met somebody as smart with people. Like good with them is one thing, but she’s smart. She knows exactly what people need from her, what’s going to get the most out of them.”
Toughness comes in a lot of packages.
As Davis said, “Straight dawg.”
*Big crowd expected. Bluder and Iowa’s players who appeared at media conferences Thursday radiated the excitement that a sold out home arena promises on Friday afternoon.
“It’s tremendous,” Clark said. “This doesn’t happen many places in the country for women’s basketball.”
But Iowa was unranked and not really in the running for a home site in the women’s tournament after losses to IUPUI, Northwestern and Ohio State. Iowa also had losses to Maryland at home and to Michigan on the road. It didn’t have a signature victory to separate itself from the pack.
It was an uphill climb to get to this point, but beating Indiana two times in two days and beating Michigan in the last regular-season game set up the Hawkeyes. The Big Ten tournament run was icing on the cake.
“I think we were certainly thinking about that, and obviously we weren’t at our best then,” Clark said of earning a top-16 seed and a home site. “We had to deal with injuries and Covid and things like that. I think we had so many opportunities still in front of us, and we took full advantage of them.
“And now that’s why we’re on the 2 (seed) line, we’re hosting, and I think it’s very deserved. And hosting is very important, and that’s where we wanted to be.”
Iowa’s season-ending game against Michigan that determined the conference title was sold out, and players clearly understand the import of being at home and of having a big crowd.
“It’s kind of indescribable walking out of the tunnel to a sold-out crowd and they’re cheering for you,” Czinano said. “It’s something that not many people get to experience. I hope Hawk fans know how much it means to us, how much it really does help us momentum-wise, and how we love the support. It’s part of the reason we all chose Iowa. The support here is crazy. It’s unbelievable. “
“I’m thrilled,” Bluder said. “The lights are on and we’re dancing and we’re having fun.”
*The Redbirds. Bluder described Iowa’s first opponent, Illinois State (19-13), as a really good defensive team.
“They play exclusively player-to-player defense,” she said. “I know they’re going to bring help on Monika, but they just really do a good job. JuJu (Juliunn Redmond) does a great job of getting out and denying them. I’m sure she’s going to be on Caitlin, but a very good defensive team.”
Illinois State coach Kristen Gillespie noted the obvious that the two teams are a contrast in styles.
“We’ve played teams that play all different styles,” she said. “We are who we are, though, and I like who we are. I think we have a good game plan. Now is it going to be enough? I don’t know.”
Gillespie acknowledged her team has not faced a player like Clark and added that Czinano is probably the best post player they have seen.
“Heck, why not try to go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country,” she said. “It will be by committee. We’re going to have to play phenomenal team defense.”
Bluder said Iowa will try to counter the Redbirds’ deliberate play with its fast-paced transition offense.
“We will absolutely get out and run because that’s us,” Bluder said. “We’re not going to change anything. It they want to milk the clock on the offensive end, so be it. We need to get out and deny the passing lanes a little bit more. We need to create our own offense from our defense.”