Leistikow: The fun and joy of Iowa women’s basketball; ‘It’s not like this everywhere’

ALBANY, N.Y. — With a 23-point lead and just over a minute to go in Iowa’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Holy Cross, Sharon Goodman was double-teamed after receiving a pass near the basket.

Whatever happened next would be inconsequential to the Hawkeyes advancing into the second round. But the 14,000-plus fans, still in their seats, and the Iowa players and coaches on the nearby sideline cared deeply.

Because they know Goodman’s story. The players and coaches know her heart, and the fans feel like they do. She’s an Iowa women’s basketball player, so she’s become family.

Imagine if you had a sibling or son or daughter or any close relative playing in the NCAA Tournament. You’d be watching every second on the edge of your seat, too, no matter the score. That’s how most of us are (or were) wired.

To feel support from our loved ones and also to give support to those we love gives us comfort and joy. To share moments of success together, well, that’s part of what you’re hearing when all those fans erupt when the ball goes through the hoop.


And that’s all by design, all part of the plan. A focus on relationships has been at the core of Lisa Bluder’s 24-year tenure as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.

Whether a long-time starter like Kate Martin (20) or reserve like Jada Gyamfi, right, Hawkeye players share a tight bond that helps them celebrate one another on and off the court.

“We love each other. It’s genuine,” said sophomore Jada Gyamfi, who has scored 25 points this season — 1,088 fewer than superstar guard Caitlin Clark — but unofficially leads the team in hugs and smiles. “Even if I don’t get in the game, it’s the care and the joy when I see my best friends are being successful on the court. And I feel like a lot of the girls feel the same way.”

It’s been written before, but worth repeating: When Bluder and her staff scout top high school players, they’re watching how they react when they are not playing, not in the spotlight. Do they support their teammates from the bench? Do they have a love for the game and those around them?

There was a lot of outside disappointment when Bluder and her coaching staff didn’t add someone from the transfer portal last summer to a team that had a chance to compete for a national championship. But if they don’t find the right fit personally as well as on the basketball floor, there is no path forward.

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