By Susan Harman
As tense as the Michigan State game was, it may be just the right kind of preparation for Iowa’s two-game Big Ten road trip to sold-out arenas.
“We found a way to win, and we were able to pull it out without playing our best basketball against a really good Michigan State team,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Their defense was a lot better than I thought it was from watching film. I knew about their press, but that wasn’t even a factor. It was really their quarter-court defense that was a factor.”
The fourth-ranked Hawkeyes (14-1, 3-0) pulled it out on Caitlin Clark’s last 10th-of-a-second 3-pointer that made its way around the country in just a few hours. But the process was difficult and messy. The Spartans played a tight, physical defense and, despite using only seven players, were relentless to the end.
The schedule ushers in Friday’s 5 p.m. game at Rutgers (BTN) followed by a Tuesday night game at Purdue. Rutgers (6-10, 0-3) long has been known for belly-button, physical defense with assorted hand checks and nudges under the basket. It hasn’t changed under second-year coach Coquese Washington.
“I think it helps,” Bluder said of the “preparation” the team got against the Spartans. “I think the more times you see different types of defenses and you’re exposed to them, then you’re more prepared for them.”
Last year’s matchup in Iowa City was a 111-57 rout by Iowa. Iowa was coming off a disappointing loss at Indiana, and RU was in its first year with a new coach after having some tough years when coach Vivian Stringer was sidelined with health issues.
“Obviously we’re playing at their place,” Bluder said. “But every year is a new year. They’re shooting the ball better, especially from three.”
Bluder cited the Scarlet Knights’ 45 percent 3-point shooting (5-11) against Purdue on Tuesday. Overall Rutgers is shooting .327 from 3-point range, but reserve Jillian Huerter is shooting 40 percent, and sophomore Antonia Bates shoots 38 percent.
Sophomore Kaylene Smikle is the team’s leading scorer (16.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and at the top of Iowa’s scout. She poured in 28 points in last season’s game at Iowa.
But neither Smikle nor Bates played in Tuesday’s game at Purdue.
“(Smikle) has only played five minutes in the last two games, and Bates, another starter, hasn’t played either,” Bluder said. “So it’s kind of hard to prepare for them because we don’t know if their best player is going to play for them.”
Bluder said Iowa will prepare as if Smikle will play.
“She’s a good player,” Bluder said. ‘She’s hard to guard; she’s 6-foot; she can shoot threes, can post up, can drive to the basket. She offensive rebounds really hard. She is really a key player in my mind.”
The Knights have good size on the perimeter and more depth in the post. They lost at Purdue by one point when they missed a contested layup at the buzzer, and they only lost by 10 at Indiana. But the Knights have lost five in a row.
Iowa has its own concerns after its offense turned stagnant for large portions of the MSU game. Clark took 34 of Iowa’s 67 shots and made all but one of its nine 3-pointers.
“I think everybody understands that Caitlin is going to take the most shots on our team, and that she is going to take some shots that other people aren’t allowed to take or are able to take,” Bluder said. “And I think everybody knows that when the chips are down, that’s what you’re going to look for.
“So we’re trying to get other people involved in the offense. We’ve got to knock down a few more outside shots by other people, but we need to give other people some more opportunities. That’s a work in progress.”
Bluder acknowledged that the team needs to get 3-point shooting from other non-Clark sources. Clark (.402) and Taylor McCabe (.424) are far and away the most efficient perimeter shooters so far. Kate Martin is at 35 percent after shooting 41 percent a year ago. This is where McKenna Warnock’s absence is most felt.