IOWA CITY – Even with established characters and roles, such as that possessed by the Iowa women’s basketball team, each year is its own journey and requires the right set-up. Intense showdowns early in the season, like the one the Hawkeyes will see in Oregon this week, help that process tremendously.
No. 8 Iowa (4-1) has been circling the Phil Knight Invitational since it was announced the Hawkeyes would be joining a prestigious field at one of the glittering Thanksgiving events. Friday’s opener at 7:30 p.m. against Oregon State (4-0) at the Chiles Center in Portland – followed by a Sunday matchup against Duke or No. 3 Connecticut – offers Iowa the chance after three consecutive conference grinds.
“We’re really excited and honored to be able to go at all,” said McKenna Warnock, a senior from Iowa. “It’s great to see so early in the season and that can help inspire a lot of confidence.”
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After smoking Southern and Evansville earlier in the year, Iowa prevailed through an overtime win at Drake, a tough loss to Kansas State, and a home win over Belmont that left the run-and-gun Hawkeyes under 80 points . There have been no unexpected issues in five games, but the chance to find top results again this week could prove crucial as more challenges lie ahead.
Friday literally presents a tall order thanks to Oregon State’s 6-foot-9 Jelena Mitrovic at center. The Serbian standout is averaging nearly a double-double (8.5 points, 8.8 rebounds) while playing around 25 minutes per game. While All-Big-Ten gun Monika Czinano will battle Mitrovic for most of the night, any minutes Iowa’s frontcourt reserves get against her could prove beneficial in the games to come.
“Coach (Jan) Jensen was trying to find a step stool at practice so someone could stand out and try to shoot over them,” said Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder. “Jelena is a legitimate 6-foot-9. I was trying to tell the team that you can’t just turn around and do a jump shot over them. You have to be creative with your post moves.”
Speaking of Post, the Hawkeyes continue to roll there with Addison O’Grady and Hannah Stuelke as primary backups. The minutes there were more up for grabs than any other spot on Iowa’s roster. It appears that a more concrete plan is taking shape.
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Stuelke was the biggest looker in five games and quickly showed the versatility that has made her such an enticing prospect from Cedar Rapids, Washington. Currently averaging 14 minutes per game, she should see an expanded role as long as she proves capable of handling it.
“We need to buy her more minutes,” Bluder said. “We all know that, and we’re trying to be creative and think about how we’re going to make that happen. My problem right now is that she supports four and five – and I don’t want to give her three as another position to learn from. I think it’s really hard for a newbie.”
Iowa’s upcoming schedule is just as difficult, with Friday being the first of six straight games against major conference opponents. After returning from Portland, Iowa meets state No. 11 North Carolina (Dec. 1), Wisconsin (Dec. 4), state No. 4 Iowa (Dec. 7) and Minnesota (Dec. 10).
The Hawkeyes know these matters will carry significant weight in November and December and — to an extent — will help shape the season once Big Ten play fully begins.
“Those games up front are super important,” Warnock said. “And they will certainly help later.”
Dargan Southard is a sports trends reporter, covering athletics in Iowa for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Dargan_Southard.