A look back at Iowa’s emotional run to 1993 Final Four in wake of tragedy
By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On hearing that Lisa Bluder’s first voice mail after the Louisville game was from C. Vivian Stringer, former Iowa coach Angie Lee said, “That is so awesome that she made that outreach and did that. It’s as it should be.”
Lee, who played at Iowa, was also an assistant to Stringer for several seasons including the 1993 Final Four season. And she is still following the Hawkeyes.
“No question; the Hawkeye pride lives on,” Lee said. “I’m ecstatic for them. Hats off to the coaching staff and everybody. And it takes all of them.”
With 30 years elapsed she still has vivid, at times emotional, recollections of that season and the trip to the national semifinals. It wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
Stringer and her husband, Bill, were preparing dinner the day before Thanksgiving when Bill, 47, died suddenly leaving her with a young son, a severely disabled daughter and an empty heart.
“In a moment my whole world had fallen apart,” Stringer recalled in her autobiography.
Stringer was in shock and had to step away from basketball. Marianna Freeman was her first assistant, and she took over with help from assistants Linda Meyers and Lee. Stringer didn’t come back to basketball until January.
“As emotional and hard as that loss was, it took us to another level,” Lee said. “We were playing for something bigger than ourselves. He was like a father figure to that entire team. I give all the credit to those players.”
When Stringer did return it took the team and coaches a little bit of time to get the right feel for what they were trying to do. “It was like walking on eggshells,” Lee said.
Players and assistants wanted desperately to help Stringer in any way they could. But the thing that helped the most was Stringer’s own re-immersion into her job and her second family.
The 1992 team had been upset in the NCAA Tournament by Southwest Missouri State in overtime in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It was a memorable game in which Stringer oddly got a technical for retrieving a player’s shoe on the court. But it was a bitter loss for a very talented team.
“That was the first catalyst,” Lee said.
So the 1992-93 team came into the season talented and hungry. The names are a who’s who of Iowa women’s basketball history: Tia Jackson, Toni Foster, Necole Tunsil and Laurie Aaron. “They were great players with great hearts,” Lee said.
Then a terrible tragedy intervened that seemed eventually to galvanize everyone. Iowa started the season 23-1. The Hawks pounded Drake, then coached by Bluder.
“Honestly I don’t remember a lot about that team other than coach Stringer,” Bluder said.
A 90-44 loss will do that to your memory.
Iowa won a share of the Big Ten title after two late league losses. There was no Big Ten Tournament at the time. Iowa was given a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament, but because of a scheduled Guns N’ Roses concert at CHA the team had to go on the road to Old Dominion. It was a different time.
Iowa won that game, beat Auburn at CHA and then had to deal with Pat Summitt’s Tennessee, which won the national title two years before and had three titles in five seasons. But Iowa played with no doubts.
“I remember we built a 10-point lead and sometimes you can think, it’s still way too close,” Lee said. “But that 10-point lead, it was never going to be surpassed because we were clicking. We were on all cylinders. That 10-point lead was insurmountable.”
Beating Tennessee, basketball’s premier program, cemented the team’s confidence.
“I think it made it sweeter because you have so much incredible respect for Tennessee and their program,” Lee said. “That was the true test. So it wasn’t just that we’re going to the Final Four. We’re going to the Final Four having taken down a dynasty.”
Stringer had taken Cheyney State to the NCAA’s first Final Four in 1982 so she had some familiarity with the distractions associated with the event. She kept the team in a routine. Practices, meals and shootarounds were the same as always.
The Hawkeyes played a familiar opponent, Ohio State, with which they had split the two regular-season games. There was a comfort level in playing a conference team. The team was keyed up and ready to go.
Once the game starts, Lee said, all the trappings of the event fade away, and it’s all about playing a game they’ve played for years.
Thirty years ago Iowa was on the short end of a 73-72 overtime game. A controversial non-call at the end is still debated. Star forward Tia Jackson was on a tear when she sprained her ankle in the first half.
“We were so close, so close,” Lee said.
The 1993 team and the 2023 teams are polar opposites in their styles. Stringer’s teams were defensive demons. Bluder’s teams are run and gun and run some more. Both are winners.
Above all Lee remembers a season in which a team bonded despite tragedy.
“It was still so surreal,” she said. “It’s hard for me to put into words what this team overcame to get there. It wasn’t the Final Four in and of itself; it was the journey. It was how tight as a family we stayed strong through one thing after the next. And just the joy that was brought to Vivian for a sheer moment.”