Final exams, upcoming foes present challenges

Dec. 16, 2008

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Final exams, the mythical state championship and the Big Ten Conference opener are all on the line during the next seven days for the University of Iowa women’s basketball team (6-4 overall).

The Hawkeye players are nearing the middle of finals week before playing at Drake on Saturday and at Wisconsin on Monday, Dec. 22. The Bulldogs are 6-3 overall following a 67-55 win against Western Michigan on Dec. 14; Wisconsin has won 10 straight games after a season-opening 20-point loss at South Dakota State.

“It’s a pretty important week for us,” UI head coach Lisa Bluder said at a media conference Tuesday in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena press room. “We have finals going on, we have our last in-state rival game — an opportunity to win the state championship — and we open up Big Ten play against the team that’s winning the Big Ten Conference right now. Both of those games are on the road. It’s a challenging week for us.”

Not only are both games away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but both opponents sport spotless records on their home courts. Drake is 4-0 at the Knapp Center (wins against Texas State, Columbia, Coppin State and Western Michigan) and Wisconsin is 6-0 at the Kohl Center (wins against Drake, Canisius, UW-Milwaukee, Virginia tech, Northern Illinois and Marquette). The good news, according to Bluder, is that both Drake and Wisconsin play similar styles, which is an advantage in preparation since the games are three days apart.

“These teams are kind of similar,” Bluder said. “Both play similar defense, both play similar in picking up in the full court. At least that’s helpful for us. We can do things this week to help us prepare for both teams and that’s a real key.”

Bluder and the Hawkeyes expect their offense to face full-court pressure defense for the next 80 minutes against both the Bulldogs and Badgers.

It will be a return to Drake for Bluder and assistant coaches Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald. Bluder coached the Bulldogs for 10 seasons, winning four Missouri Valley Conference championships. Jensen and Fitzgerald were Drake players.

“For me, personally, it’s lessened over the years,” Bluder said about the significance of her return trips to Des Moines. “I’ve been away from there for nine years. For Jan and Jenni, it’s a little more emotional because they actually wore that uniform. Jan’s jersey is hanging there as a retired jersey. You see a lot of good friends and great supporters of that program and that’s probably the more emotional thing.”

The Bulldogs are led in scoring by Des Moines Lincoln graduate Kristen Turk — one of two native Iowans on the Drake roster. Turk is averaging 14.2 points per game with nearly half of her field goals coming from three-point range (20 of 45).

“Turk is shooting the ball very well and she’s doing a nice job,” Bluder said.

Iowa has won six consecutive games against the Bulldogs, including the last three in the Knapp Center. The Hawkeyes posted a 62-50 victory last season in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Iowa has also won three in a row against Wisconsin, a team Bluder says has beefed up its defensive pressure, due in part to the hiring of assistant coach Kathi Bennett.

“Their defense is much, much better,” Bluder said. “Kathi has always hung her hat on defense and she’s doing a wonderful job.”

If there has been an area of concern this season for the Hawkeyes, it has been the lack of close games. During Iowa’s six wins, the Hawkeyes have a margin of victory of 23.2 points per game. The four losses have come by an average of 20.3 points per game.

“We’ve had some extremes,” Bluder said. “I don’t like that because we haven’t been in those pressure situations a lot. I think you need to be in those pressure situations in order to know how people are going to handle themselves.”

Tipoff between the Hawkeyes and Drake is 11:05 a.m. from the Knapp Center. A win for Iowa means a spotless 3-0 record against in-state competition and the mythical state championship.

“We have goals and our No. 1 goal is to be state champion,” Bluder said. “It’s a great motivation for us. It’s our No. 1 goal because of timeliness more than weighted.”

The Iowa-Wisconsin game begins at 7:05 p.m.