By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa-Iowa State rivalry in women’s basketball is always intense and entertaining, but it doesn’t always go the way it looks on paper.
Two years ago Iowa had a decided skill and production advantage in the post, but ISU’s unheralded combination of Morgan Kane and Beatriz Jordao held their own against Monika Czinano. Neither team’s All-American scorer, ISU’s Ashley Joens or Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, shot well, and ISU completely shut down Iowa’s transition game. Result: ISU 77, Iowa 70.
A year ago both teams came in with high scoring averages and shooting high percentages. So, of course, neither team shot well. Iowa managed to shake its offensive funk in the third quarter to win the game, 70-57, but it was much more of a slog than expected with two run-and-gun offenses.
“They are physical games, not a lot usually gets called,” Clark said. “There’s just high tension, high emotion. And that’s how every rivalry game is. Things don’t always go according to plan, but you kind of have to find a way to win even if it’s not the normal way.
“Sometimes things get a little wacky when you’re playing in these rivalry games, but I think we have the experience, a lot of our team has played in these rivalry games. Also we’ve already played UNI and Drake. I think that helps.”
ISU coach Bill Fennelly noted the difference in experience.
“They are a good, experienced team Fennelly said. “Last year they were playing in the national championship game. Most of our kids were worried about senior prom.”
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said she can’t bring herself to look at the game two years ago.
“I just haven’t looked back to two years ago when we lost there,” Bluder said. “I just remember we lost there. But home court has meant a lot in this rivalry.”
Iowa State (4-3) is, for the most part, an unknown quantity, while fourth-ranked Iowa (8-1) will look much the same even with the graduation of Czinano and McKenna Warnock.
Iowa State’s outstanding recruiting class has been immediately thrown into the fire. Fennelly has been starting four freshmen to go with 6-2 senior forward Nyamer Diew. The class includes Iowa Citian Kelsey Joens; 6-2 Addy Brown, a McDonald’s All American; 6-3 Audi Crooks, and 6-2 Jaylynn Bristow. Sharing duties in the post with Crooks, Iowa’s Miss Basketball last year, is 6-5 transfer Isnelle Natabou.
This Cyclone team looks very different. The Cyclones lost Joens to the WNBA. Senior guard Lexi Donarski transferred to North Carolina, and redshirt sophomore guard Denae Fritz transferred to Baylor.
“It definitely makes you pay attention a lot more,” Clark said of preparing for the new faces. “Watch more game film, pay attention to the scout better because you don’t know them necessarily like you would in previous years.
“They all have different skills and strengths, and some of the things that they’re doing I’m sure are different.”
ISU senior point guard Emily Ryan hasn’t played this year due to a “health-related issue.” The absence of an experienced point guard of Ryan’s caliber can’t be overemphasized with a lineup full of rookies.
But the Cyclones will have a size advantage pretty much around the court, and this team is more athletic and more potent inside with Crooks and Natabou.
“Yeah, they’re bigger than us at the guard position, that’s for sure,” Bluder said.
Clark cited Kansas State as an example of a team with tall guards.
“I don’t think there’s anything we haven’t seen yet. But the biggest thing is we can throw a lot of different defenses at them,” Clark said.
Defending Crooks will likely be at the top of the scout. She’s a big, strong, mostly immovable presence in the post with soft hands and a knack for getting position. She averages 16 points and five rebounds while playing 20 minutes a game.
“Post play is always important; this game historically gets very physical,” Fennelly said. “We need to score on the block. We need to anchor our interior defense. Hopefully we can create some situations where we can get some baskets around the goal because their perimeter defense is really, really good.”
Crooks has been a constant at the Iowa State Girls Basketball tournament, having led Algona Garrigan to the 1A championship game four years in a row while winning two titles. She was the subject of a big recruiting effort by both schools.
“Audi Crooks is a really, really hard person to defend,” Bluder said. “An excellent shooter on the block, and she’s just hard to get around, so they’re going to pose a lot of defensive challenges for us.”
“She’s physical, and she’s big, and she’s hard to guard,” Clark said. “We always want our posts to push off the block, so that’s going to be a key.”
Iowa counters with its post tandem of 6-3 Sharon Goodman and 6-4 Addie O’Grady and maybe 6-2 Hannah Stuelke.
Monday Bluder said she didn’t know Stuelke’s status, after the sophomore missed three games with an ankle injury, but prior to the media conference Stuelke was seen jogging down the hallway in playing attire before practice. Stuelke’s mobility would be a big addition for Iowa in the post against Crooks and Natabou.
The game tips off Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum and can be seen on ESPN2 or heard on the Iowa Radio Network. ESPN will have its “A” team at the game: Rebecca Lobo, Ryan Ruocco and Holly Rowe.