3 Iowa women’s teams in Top 25 for 1st time since ’98
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa has always strongly backed its Division I women’s basketball programs, a trend that dates back decades.
Fans from across the state had reason to celebrate on Monday as three of their teams landed in the Top 25 for the first time since 1998. The Hawkeyes (4-1) lead the way at No. 14, followed by Iowa State (5-0) at No. 23 and Drake (7-1) at No. 24.
Iowa joined Texas as the only states with a trio of ranked teams this week.
“It’s great for our state. I think it’s amazing,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, whose team ranked 13th nationally in attendance last season (Iowa State was third and Drake was 42nd). “All of us that coach in this state are fortunate because we have a tradition of girls basketball in this state, and we have respect from fans and kids growing up that want to play basketball. We all benefit from that.”
C. Vivian Stringer helped make women’s basketball relevant in Iowa when she led the Hawkeyes to 169 wins and a Final Four between 1983 and 1995. Bluder, who grew up in Iowa, took over the Hawkeyes in 2000 after building a winner at Drake — and she’s never had a player as talented as Megan Gustafson.
Gustafson, the reigning Big Ten player of the year, has won the league’s player of the week award for three weeks in a row despite not having injured star guard Kathleen Doyle on the court to help.
Gustafson scored 28 points and grabbed 16 rebounds — including 17 points in the fourth quarter alone — to help the Hawkeyes rally from a 24-point deficit in last week’s win over West Virginia. Iowa plays at top-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday with a chance to knock off the defending national champion.
“We’re really excited. I know each and every one of us has had this circled on our calendars for a longtime,” Gustafson said.
Iowa State badly trailed Stringer and the Hawkeyes until it hired Bill Fennelly in 1995.
The Cyclones have since become one of the top draws in the sport despite never reaching the Final Four, and Fennelly was rewarded with what’s essentially been a lifetime contract since 2007.
The Cyclones have five Sweet Sixteen appearances under Fennelly, who has star Bridget Carleton leading the way this season.
Carleton, who could play for Canada in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is averaging 16.4 points, 11.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists in helping Iowa State climb back into the poll for the first time since 2014.
“I think it’s huge. It’s exciting,” Carleton said of her team’s ranking.
The success of Drake and its coach, Jennie Baranczyk, might not have been possible without the momentum generated by Bluder and Fennelly. Baranczyk grew up in Des Moines, won two state championships in high school and was an honorable-mention All-America pick under Bluder at Iowa 15 years ago.
She came home to coach Drake in 2012 when she was just 31, and she has built the Bulldogs into a top mid-major programs. Drake is 42-0 in Missouri Valley games over the past two seasons, and last season they drew nearly 3,000 fans a game — outpacing the likes of Stanford and North Carolina.
The Bulldogs also benefit from the fact that Iowa and Iowa State regularly schedule them, like they did this season, even though doing so carries more risk than benefit as far as their NCAA Tournament hopes are concerned.
“I love the state of Iowa in terms of basketball quality because one, I think we have great teams,” Baranczyk said, “I also think we have such an educated fan base that people come out to watch it, and so I think that’s something that’s very distinct.”