`Players Week' kicks off crucial stretch for Iowa

Jan. 23, 2008

University of Iowa Game Notes

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Lisa Bluder calls it a “players week.” With back-to-back home Big Ten Conference home games within three days, it will be more games than practice for the Hawkeye women’s basketball team.

That’s fine with Bluder, the University of Iowa head coach, who has seen her squad win two consecutive conference games and is now staring at a five-game stretch with four home games along with a Jan. 31 date at Northwestern, which is winless in seven Big Ten outings. Iowa hosts Purdue on Thursday, Jan. 24 (7:05 p.m.) and Michigan on Sunday, Jan. 27 (2:05 p.m.).

A 78-74 overtime win at home against Wisconsin on Jan. 13 and a 60-58 come-from-behind thriller at Illinois on Jan. 21 leaves the Hawkeyes with an overall record of 11-7, 4-3 in the league. Purdue, which played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the nation, is 9-9, 5-2.

UI junior point guard Kristi Smith, the hero against Illinois, will be in the spotlight again against the Boilermakers. After scanning the Purdue roster, Bluder said she is most impressed with sophomore point guard FahKara Malone, a defensive ace who is also averaging 7.5 points and 3.4 assists per game.

“The person I love to watch on this team is HahKara Malone,” Bluder said. “She is so fast, such a great defensive player. She has the quickest hands I’ve ever seen. She’s excellent at harassing the point guard and stealing the ball. She is a key figure on this basketball team.”

It’s hard to imagine many Big Ten guards playing with as much poise and confidence of late as Smith.

“I love to play against good point guards,” Smith said. “I take it as a challenge. If we can break their press easily and get a few quick baskets, they’ll have to figure something else out.”

Smith is averaging 16.8 points and 3.8 assists during Iowa’s last five games. She banked in a driving layup with 6.7 seconds remaining to give the Hawkeyes the victory at Illinois.

“This is a very, very busy week for us, but we’re off to a good start,” Bluder said. “Our team feels good about having won two very close games in a row. It’s nice to be able to pull out the close games.”

Either Iowa or Purdue will own a three-game winning streak following Thursday’s game. The difficult Boilermaker nonconference schedule included games against No. 8 Duke, No. 4 North Carolina, No. 16 Notre Dame and No. 1 Connecticut.

“Purdue really, really challenged itself with a difficult nonconference schedule,” Bluder said. “Purdue is going to be no easy challenge on Thursday night. They’re a good team, very athletic and I think they’re the best transition team in the Big Ten. They do a wonderful job of pushing the ball in transition.”

Purdue and its ball-hawking pressure defense leads the Big Ten with 10.43 steals per game. This will be the 52nd meeting between the teams with the Boilermakers leading the all-time series 28-23. Purdue has a two-game winning streak against the Hawkeyes after taking both games a year ago — 68-58 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and 76-52 in West Lafayette, Ind. Iowa is 13-9 all-time against the Boilermakers in Iowa City.

Bluder said her team can thank the Big Ten Conference for allowing an opportunity to avenge a 63-46 loss at Michigan on Dec. 30. Sunday’s rematch with the Wolverines, as well as the road game at Northwestern, were the two games added to Iowa’s schedule when it was expanded from 16 league games to 18.

“I know the team is anxious to have that rematch with Michigan,” Bluder said. “Now we can hopefully see some of the benefits with going to 18 games because our team would love to have another rematch with Michigan.”

Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State are in a four-way tie for fourth place in the league at 4-3. Ohio State is 6-1 and Indiana and Purdue are tied for second at 5-2.

“I thought we would have a few more Big Ten wins, I really did,” Bluder said. “The Michigan game comes to mind and we have the opportunity to reclaim that one.”

During the last four games, Megan Skouby’s minutes — and production — have increased. During that span, she is averaging 17.8 minutes and 9.8 points with three consecutive double-digit scoring games and has made 16 of 32 field goals (50 percent). In the previous three games, Skouby was averaging eight minutes and 2.3 points per game.

“Megan is playing better and definitely shooting better,” Bluder said. “She is shooting the ball at a higher percentage.”

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