Oct. 29, 2015
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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Rebuild? Reload? For the University of Iowa women’s basketball program it’s like the timeless tomato, tomäto argument.
The highest-scoring Big Ten Conference trio of Bethany Doolittle, Melissa Dixon, and Samantha Logic has graduated, but optimism is high in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes are searching for their ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, a streak that began in 2008 and is unmatched among league peers.
Iowa returns starters Ally Disterhoft, a junior, and Whitney Jennings, a sophomore. Senior Kali Peschel started three games early in the 2014-15 season before settling into a pivotal role off the bench.
“Even though the faces have changed in our program, the culture remains the same,” UI head coach Lisa Bluder said Thursday at a media day news conference in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “We have the same group of women that wants to work hard every day in practice, achieve academically, be tremendous role models, and represent our program in a first-class manner. That has not changed. Even though the faces have, those women have the same goals and values we’ve had for the last many years.”
The Hawkeyes compiled a record of 26-8 last season — 18-0 at home — and 14-4 in the Big Ten Conference. They won their first two NCAA Tournament games and advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to Baylor in Oklahoma City.
Somewhat lost in Iowa’s team-first mentality is that Disterhoft and Dixon shared scoring honors with 503 points (14.8 per game). Or that Peschel was second on the team with 43.4 accuracy from 3-point range. Or that Jennings primarily played the off guard position and compiled 9.1 points and 1.8 assists per game while making 36 3-point field goals.
“Ally is going to have a different role for us this year,” Bluder said. “She has had two terrific seasons in an Iowa uniform and has been named to the preseason All-Big Ten team. It shows the respect that everyone around the league has for her.
“Even though the faces have changed in our program, the culture remains the same. We have the same group of women that wants to work hard every day in practice, achieve academically, be tremendous role models, and represent our program in a first-class manner. That has not changed. Even though the faces have, those women have the same goals and values we’ve had for the last many years.”
UI basketball coach
“Whitney has so much speed and is one of the quickest ball handlers I have ever coached. That’s tough to defend. Kali is going to be asked to be more of a leader and scorer. She is playing very well.”
The departure of the 2015 senior class leaves a void, but Bluder expects it to be filled by several veterans thirsting for prolonged playing time. Hawkeye fans will hear more from senior Claire Till (29 games, 56.5 field goal percentage), junior Alexa Kastanek (32 games, 34.2 percent from 3-point), and sophomores Christina Buttenham (27 games, 34.8 percent from 3-point), Chase Coley (29 games, 64.9 field goal percentage), and Carly Mohns (14 games).
It is a group, Bluder said, that has watched, learned, and accepted its role. Now the role will expand.
“We bring players in here that may not be top 10 in the country and we develop them,” Bluder said. “We take great pride in that and that takes time.”
The Hawkeyes welcome a four-member freshman class that was ranked 17th-best in the nation by ESPN HoopGurlz. It includes guard Tania Davis (Miss Basketball in the state of Michigan), forward Hannah Stewart (Miss Basketball in North Dakota), forward Megan Gustafson (all-time scoring leader in Wisconsin high school history), and forward Tagyn Larson (four-time all-state in South Dakota).
Iowa’s 14-person roster received a jump start to bonding during a 12-day tour to Italy from Aug. 11-22.
“The Italy trip was at the best time with eight freshmen and sophomores on our basketball team,” Bluder said. “You need more repetition and experience and the quicker you get that, the quicker you’re going to be successful. We were able to escalate that with the 10 practice days we had.
“It also helped with chemistry; when you’re over there and you’re staying 12 days together and enjoying the culture of Italy, it forms memories and bonds that you can’t form in any other way. That was beneficial.”
Peschel and Disterhoft were elected team captains. Disterhoft, a second-team All-Big Ten performer last season, was the only sophomore nationally to be named a CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American.
“I don’t think that got enough play last year,” Bluder said. “The only sophomore in America named as an Academic All-American and we were the only school in America that had two Academic All-Americans on our team with Sam (Logic) and Ally. That is tremendous.”
The Hawkeyes host Upper Iowa in an exhibition Nov. 8, beginning at 2 p.m. (CT) on Mediacom Court. The regular season opens with the Hawkeye Challenge from Nov. 13-15. Iowa takes on North Dakota on Nov. 13 at 6 p.m.