By Susan Harman
One could argue that Iowa really hasn’t been tested yet in the Big Ten because it hasn’t played a first-division team on the road. Beating defending Big Ten champion Indiana counts as a major victory, but it was played before 14,000 snow-crazed fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena after Indiana had to fly in the day of the game.
Ohio State (14-3, 5-1) on Sunday will be the first of several difficult road games (Maryland, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota) remaining. And Iowa (18-1, 7-0) plays host to these same Buckeyes to end the regular season.
OSU proved its mettle by winning, 84-76, at Maryland on Wednesday. Its only losses have been to No. 5 UCLA, No. 6 USC and at Michigan when Ann Arbor was still lit by the fervor created by a national football championship.
“You’re playing a top 10 (actually No. 18) team in a sold-out arena at their place. This is a huge game for us, and it would be a huge win on the road,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We know it’s going to be very, very difficult, but certainly if we get past this one it gives us confidence going forward playing at Indiana, Maryland and some of those other places.
“It’s going to be an unbelievable environment.”
The game is at 11 a.m. and will be shown on NBC.
Iowa won both games against OSU a year ago, 83-72, in Columbus and, 105-72, in the Big Ten tournament championship. The latter game was a blowout after one quarter. Caitlin Clark had triple-doubles in both games.
This year’s version of the Buckeyes is a little more sleek. There’s quickness all over the court. Gone is 3-point ace Taylor Mikesell, but OSU’s Jacy Sheldon (.365), Taylor Thierry (.421), Rebeka Mikulasikova (.409) and reserve Emma Shumate (.413) all can shoot it.
OSU may not rely on the three as much as other teams. Twenty-three percent of OSU’s made baskets are threes, whereas Iowa is at 32 percent. What it does rely upon is points off turnovers.
The Buckeyes will press full court, and even though Iowa has Clark to solve the traps, it wears on opponents. The addition of Duke transfer Celeste Taylor has strengthened an already formidable defense.
“You can’t get rattled,” Bluder said of the keys to handling the pressure. “That’s what they want you to do is to get rattled and make unforced errors, silly turnovers. They’re very aggressive in it. And they’re so long they cover a lot of ground in their traps and a lot of space.”
Iowa will try to make its own hay out the press.
“They do press, and they’re a very aggressive team,” Iowa junior Sydney Affolter said. “So there’s not going to be a ton of fouls called all the time. But it’s fun playing. People want to press us, and when we break it we’re going to get points in transition. So I think once we break it a couple of times, they’ll end up taking it off.”
That is what happened in the Big Ten tournament.
“We always want to break it and get those high-percentage scores because when you press that’s what you’re giving up,” Bluder said. “If you break the press you’re giving up mismatches at the other end.”
Super sophomore Cotie McMahon, listed at 6-foot but who plays a couple inches taller, is a matchup nightmare and a vigorous defender.
“She’s just a tremendous player,” Bluder said. “Played for USA Basketball last summer, an incredible athlete. She is so hard to guard because she’s so strong, and she has that spin move at the end of her finish.”
Because of an injury Sheldon did not play in the first game a year ago and played sparingly in the Big Ten tournament. She will be a focus of Iowa’s suddenly revived defense.
“Sheldon is just a tremendous basketball player,” Bluder said. “She can shoot the three, but she can beat you off the bounce and has a nice pull-up jumper. She’s somebody they really look to; she’s the leader of that team. She’s somebody they were really missing last year. I feel like she’s the glue of that team.”
Mikulasikova, a 6-4 fifth-year senior, is the Buckeye post with European skills. She’s spent a lot of her OSU career out on the perimeter, but just this week at Maryland she showed a host of post moves that will challenge Iowa’s inexperienced post crew.
“She definitely likes to be outside, but when she comes inside she is a good post player and she can set you up with a pro move,” Iowa’s Sharon Goodman said. “Post defense will be big, and it will be more so for us.”
“She’s hard to defend because of that,” Bluder said. “She stretches out the defense because she can shoot threes. But she’s also able to go into the post area, and she’s strong. She’s physical. She’s quicker than you’d think. You don’t want to put our posts in a one-on-one situation with her because she’s got really good experience, height and strength.”
Bluder said on Friday that 6-2 sophomore Hannah Stuelke should be ready to go against OSU. Stuelke missed the game against Wisconsin with an unspecified injury described as a “tweek.”
“This is the funnest part of the season,” Goodman said. “And those rivalry games are fun. I mean, Indiana was coming in here hot. They want to beat us too, and everybody’s going to give us their best shot. That’s what basketball is all about, so we’re excited.”