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

LBANY, 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. Criticize that approach if you will, but Iowa heads to Saturday’s Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament game against Colorado at MVP Arena with a 31-4 record and a chance to snag a program-record 32nd victory.

The Hawkeyes are the No. 1 seed in the Albany 2 regional, two wins away from the Final Four in Cleveland and four from their first-ever national championship.

In the view of Iowa coaches, bringing the fun to basketball not only brings out their best play but helps develop them as women. They find the value in building healthy relationships, and they see the success that can come from being selfless and lifting up one another.

“They’re 18- to 22-year-old kids that started playing the game that they love,” longtime Bluder lieutenant and Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen said. “And so many get to this level, and they hate it. They’re stressed all the time, and it’s awful when they lose and kind of good when they win. We wanted to be the ones that kind of made it still feel like the game they fell in love with.”

Why the fun flows naturally for Iowa women’s basketball

Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about what happened after Goodman caught the ball against Holy Cross. But first, let’s rewind to two Saturdays earlier in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, to a sequence that became loved and widely shared on social media.

You’ve probably seen it. Jensen came on our Hawk Central radio show recently, and she discussed it in depth: A dizzying display of seven passes by four Iowa players in less than 10 seconds that resulted in an exclamation-mark 3-pointer by Gabbie Marshall to finish off Michigan.

Kate Martin delivered the second pass of that sequence between a Michigan player’s legs to A.J. Ediger, drawing a collective “ooooh” and anticipation from the 18,000 or so Hawkeye fans who poured into the Target Center in Minneapolis. Three times, the ball made its way to Ediger in the post, and all three times she passed to an open teammate – the last being Marshall, unguarded, at the top of the key.

Release. High arc. Swish.

The passing was fun to watch, no doubt. But the reason that clip became so intoxicating was because of the faces of the joyous Hawkeye players celebrating the moment as they ran to the other end of the floor to play defense.

Kylie Feuerbach, who flicked the pass before Ediger’s assist, was beaming. Ediger, a seldom-used center, gave the back-pedaling Marshall a point of the right finger and a big smile.

“I’ve watched that a few times, just because you’re seeing people in there that don’t get a ton of minutes,” Marshall said. “AJ was the one that passed me that ball, I was just happy for her. I don’t get a chance to play with those players all the time.

“It just shows how everyone is just happy for each other. … There’s really no jealousy, no animosity. Everyone’s just so proud of each other.”

The biggest reaction from that 3-pointer was from Martin, the sixth-year senior. Arms out wide like she was a human airplane, Martin laughed and let out a joyous scream.

“It’s just, like, fun,” Martin said, thinking back to that moment. “I get more excited when my teammates do good things than when I do good things. … I feel like a proud mom. I don’t know, that’s just how I feel.”

So how does that true family bond get created when players arrive at different times and typically stay no more than four years? Recruiting high-character people is a part of it. Having the same coaches in place for more than two decades helps create that culture. But it takes work, too, and buy-in throughout the locker room. It’s extremely rare that anyone transfers out of the program.

“I just think that’s something that coach Bluder has always instilled in her players,” Martin said. “She’s not going to beg for effort and attitude. Coaches shouldn’t have to beg for that. That’s team-led, and that’s just personal drive.

“We genuinely have 14 girls who want to be here every day, who want to show up and play basketball. And we love each other. It doesn’t make it hard to just play with joy and have a smile on your face. It should be fun. It shouldn’t feel like a job.”

Bluder has her team meet in a circle, almost every day. In a circle, everyone can see each other. A circle doesn’t have a front and a back. Everyone in the circle, even a celebrity like Clark, holds equal value. The circle is a safe place where coaching wisdom and personal feelings are shared. For example, in the hours before Clark broke the NCAA Division I scoring record on Feb. 15, Bluder had each player say something they loved about Clark as a person, not as a basketball player.

“We definitely have gotten super-vulnerable with each other within the circle … and meetings and what-not,” Gyamfi said. “I think that’s something that builds that bond, the fact that we know we can trust each other to pretty much tell each other anything. We know everything about each other.

“That makes you see each other from a different perspective. That again builds that care and love for each other.”

Iowa women's basketball player Gabbie Marshall reacts with Sydney Affolter after a go-ahead basket in the 64-54 win over West Virginia on Monday.

Fans’ love runs deeper than Caitlin Clark

The crowds have followed this Iowa women’s basketball team, both physically and on TV. Iowa played all but two games, home and away (both in a holiday tournament at Florida Gulf Coast) in front of sold-out crowds. On the road, fans would start lining up as many as eight hours before tip-off to get a crack at a good general admission seat.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s first-round NCAA game against Holy Cross registered 3.2 million viewers on ABC, the most ever for a pre-Final Four women’s tournament game. (The previous record was 2.5 million for Iowa’s Elite Eight win over Louisville last year.) Two days later, Iowa’s 64-54 win against West Virginia shattered that record, with 4.9 million viewers on ESPN.

The Caitlin Clark effect? Of course, the most famous player in college basketball player is a big part of stoking that interest. But she knows more than anyone that the fan support is not all about her. She sees it first-hand.

Look in the arenas, and you’ll see much more than just No. 22 jerseys. T-shirts repping Hannah Stuelke or Kate Martin or Molly Davis or Gabbie Marshall or Sydney Affolter are everywhere. As an example, the amount of web traffic that Davis’ knee injury against Ohio State generated dwarfed that of an Iowa football Saturday.

People really do care about all these women, not just the superstar.

“It’s not like this everywhere. I know a lot of people say that, but it’s simply not,” Clark said. ”People are valued, people have fun, people smile. Our bench might have the most fun out of anybody. Sharon was saying she was going to throw up (against West Virginia) on the bench because she was so nervous. I don’t know if there’s people that care more than them.

“I think it’s the personality of our team. I think it’s the smiles. I think it’s the competitive fire. I think it’s everything but the basketball honestly. I truly believe that.”

Another thing that the Iowa team does after every home game is gather at the center of the court and wave to thank the fans. There is an authentic mutual bond that has always been there with this program, and we started to really see it grow during the era of national player of the year Megan Gustafson, who led Iowa to an Elite Eight in 2019. Gustafson passed the torch to the affable and energetic Kathleen Doyle, who became the 2020 Big Ten Player of the Year. Then came Clark, and after a year of empty arenas during the COVID-19 pandemic, people swarmed by the thousands to soak in this enjoyable Hawkeye team.

“I think (Hawkeye fans) can feel that we truly appreciate them and we truly need them,” Clark said. “Sure, we’ve made a lot of baskets, we’ve won a lot of games but we’ve had fun doing it.

“We’re competitive. We get the crowd into it. We smile. We high-five.”

Goodman is the epitome of a player who doesn’t need to be a star to be beloved.

She came to Iowa amid heart-wrenching circumstances, having lost her mother to cancer as a high school senior. This past December, she and her family and coaches opened up to the Register about how difficult that was for her personally. Getting through practice without tears was rare, Jensen said. Teammates were there for Goodman; the basketball never came first in those relationships, forged in a COVID bubble.

And Goodman has always been grateful for that love and reciprocated it.

“It’s genuine care that we have for each other,” Goodman said. “For me personally, that comes from my faith − not only wanting something to bring glory to the Lord, but also to build up others around me. That’s a call that I feel that I have. To bring joy and cheer on my teammates and cheer on their successes.”

So, back to the final minutes against Holy Cross. As Goodman made a strong catch amid a crowd, a whole bunch of thoughts and emotions were figuratively contained in the basketball she gripped.

Her mom’s memory. Four years of being a loving teammate. Four years of perfectionist work that it’s taken to assemble a 4.0 GPA and be on the floor for an NCAA Tournament. Four years of smiles from the bench when she wasn’t playing, even though she longed to be. Losing her starting role as a senior, but never complaining even though it was difficult to return to the bench.

And now, in this blowout situation, everyone in the arena knew that this could be the last time she ever touched the ball in a college game. Goodman plans to attend nursing school after the spring semester.

Goodman caught the ball and spun to her left, between the two defenders. With her left hand, she floated a hook shot that hit the right side of the rim and rolled slowly toward the glass. The official’s whistle blew for a foul. Everyone on the court stopped, everyone on the bench stared, everyone in the stands waited.

The ball trickled forward along the back iron and fell … right through the net.

Goodman bent over to the ground, hands on her knees, then launched herself up with a giant smile on her face as if to say, “Thank you, God, for all of this.” From the bench, Clark stood and clapped. Ediger threw her towel to the ground in celebration. Sophomore Taylor McCabe shouted with joy as she approached her teammate. Gyamfi did the same. The crowd responded with one of the biggest roars of a loud game.

Pure, genuine joy. Safe to say, eyes welling up with tears among those who fully understood that moment.

That is Hawkeye women’s basketball in 2024. So much bigger than one generational superstar.

“You realize that there’s a lot more than seeds and (title) rings and NET (rankings),” Jensen said. “It’s what you’re building and how you’re building it, and what they’re learning. I think we’ve tried to coach to that. We also try to live that.

“It’s fun to go to practice. Most of the days, right? That’s what we should do in life. ‘Find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ It’s a game.”

 

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