By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It’s hard to root against a plucky underdog, and that’s what Southeastern Louisiana is. The Lions won the Southland Conference tournament championship over Lamar to qualify for the school’s first NCAA Tournament. They came from behind in both the semifinal and final.
“It’s been a surreal feeling,” post Natalie Kelly said, “We made history earlier in the week to now being here at the NCAA Tournament. It’s been an amazing experience for me and the team. We are trying to enjoy it but also unlock it for the game.”
“I feel like we’ve been on a real high lately,” junior Hailey Giaratano said. “Played our best basketball, won the championship, but we’ve got to come down and focus on the game.”
Their coach, Ayla Guzzardo, played and coached at Akron before returning to her hometown to take over the Lions. Guzzardo’s teams have improved in every one of her six seasons to arrive at this point. And she has a refreshing outlook on her team’s appearance here.
“We tell them to take all of this in the moment,” Guzzardo said. “When we step on the floor and we’re in between those lines, we have a job to do. But they are enjoying this. They need to enjoy this.”
As sympathetic as they may be, roughly 14,000 fans will be actively and vociferously cheering against the Lions, which gives them something else to think about besides Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano.
The Lions are undersized, the 6-3 Kelly being their only post player. What they have is guards, lots of guards, most of whom are small but very quick. Freshman Jalencia Pierre is a good example. She is a 5-5 point guard and looks like quicksilver on the floor.
Sophomore Taylor Bell is a stocky 5-11 player who was called on to play in the post against Lamar and provided a career-high 22 points. She likely will be helping Kelly guard Czinano and Hannah Stuelke.
Giaratano is more of a forward but is listed as a guard. She shoots from the elbow, will take it inside and shoots 3-pointers at a 35-percent rate. She is the leading scorer at 12.4 points and, before you chuckle, remember that this is a defensive-oriented team that only averages 62.7 points per game. Unfortunately for the Lions, second-leading scorer Alexius Horne (12 ppg, 3 rebs) is out for the tournament with a knee injury.
Essentially this is a collision of parallel universes: one a slowdown, defensive-oriented, do-whatever-it- takes kind of team; while the other is run-and-pass-and-shoot-and-run some more kind of team.
Iowa leads the nation in scoring at 87.5 points per game and in field-goaI percentage at .509. Southeastern Louisiana gives up only 54.5 points and holds opponents to 38 percent shooting. Something has to give.
“Yeah, they really hang their hat on defense,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We feel like we’ve played against a lot of really good defensive teams all year long. We know that’s part of their gameplan. But quite honestly, we’re not going to change a whole lot of what we do.”
Iowa should have an advantage in the post. After Kelly the Lions really don’t have any size.
“I think this is going to be a big day for Monika,” Iowa senior Molly Davis said. “We know that we’re going to really be looking at her and probably a double- and triple-team may come her way. But we know she has an advantage to try to get herself as involved as much as she’s used to.”
On the perimeter, expect havoc.
“This is their first time in the tournament, and they’re going to come out fiery and aggressive and they’re quick guards,” Iowa guard Sydney Affolter said. “We’ve got to contain them from the drive. I think they are definitely more of a driving team than outside shooting.”
“They’re definitely a little undersized, but we know they’re quick and they can get in those passing lanes and then they’re not someone to be taken lightly,” Davis said. “They played close to some pretty good teams in the regular season, and we know they’re a pretty good team and we’re going to get their best shot.”
Pierre said the Lions’ offense comes off their defense. She said the Lions will pressure the ball to try to slow Iowa’s fastbreak.
“I feel like our defense has really carried us,” Kelly said.
Then there is the Caitlin Clark transition problem to solve. Guzzardo said her team has worked on its transition defense since June.
“It’s been a key to our defense; we have to stop the ball in transition,” she said. “So finding them early in transition is going to be big, making sure we protect that rim because they do run the rim really, really well. We have to do it on both ends of the floor.”
Guzzardo said her team will have to be physical with the Hawkeyes to have a chance to disrupt their rhythm.
“That’s us. That’s who we are,” she said. “We do it on a daily basis. Our players talk about being blue-collar players, that’s because that’s who they are. That’s who we recruit.”