Hawkeye women soaring at home
IOWA CITY (AP) — Lisa Bluder grew up in Iowa, and her college coaching career has been spent only at in-state schools.
So she understands the passion for the sport that spreads from the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers. That love for the game is on display in the Iowa Hawkeyes coach’s own arena, and it serves as fuel for her team.
The No. 19 Hawkeyes (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten) are tied for first in the conference and carry a 30-game home winning streak into their game against Ohio State on Thursday night. It’s the second-longest active streak in Division I — Baylor leads with 49 consecutive home wins.
“We talk about defending our home court,” senior guard Kathleen Doyle said. “It’s just a great opportunity when you get to play in front of your home fans, sleep in your bed the night before the game, things like that.”
Iowa ranks 11th nationally in average attendance at 5,940. Last season, when the Hawkeyes made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, they averaged 6,797 fans, ninth-best in the nation.
Iowa was host for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament last season. Attendance in the two sessions — 10,720 for the first round, 12,376 for the second — was the best for any women’s tournament site for the first two rounds.
Bluder, a native of nearby Marion, grew up when the state’s high school teams played six-on-six basketball, when the court was split in half, with three offensive and three defensive players.
The fan interest at the high school level isn’t quite the same now with teams playing five-on-five, and Bluder understands that. But it hasn’t hurt college attendance around the state. Iowa State ranked No. 2 nationally last season at 9,573, and the Cyclones are third this season at 9,500.
The four in-state schools — Iowa, Iowa State, Drake and Northern Iowa — play each other every season, which adds to the interest.
“I don’t know if we draw as well as the good old six-on-six days, when the town shuts down and everybody goes to the state tournament. I don’t know if it draws that well anymore,” Bluder said. “I certainly think not having any pro sports in the state, we’re certainly the outlet for that. We want to be the outlet. It’s a Hawkeye state. We want people to support that.”
Iowa went 26-8 last season, finishing second in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes, behind national player of the year and consensus All-American Megan Gustafson, won the conference tournament, then reached the regional finals in the NCAA tournament, losing to Baylor.
“I think, for one thing, we’ve been winning,” Bluder said of what has drawn fans to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “And winning brings out fans. Everyone wants to jump on that, everybody likes that. But I think it’s the style we play. We pass the ball well. We shoot the ball well.”
Bluder said her team’s personality helps attract fans.
“You can tell they have joy in the way they play,” she said. “They smile, they point at each other after something good happens. They’re excited. And it’s fun to watch them. People want to support that kind of passion.
“Our fans are passionate. They love coming out and supporting this team. They feel like they know our team. I think our team lets their personality shine on the floor.”
Senior guard Makenzie Meyer said she’s heard fans tell Doyle and other players to let them know when they need to stand up and make noise.
“They’re definitely loud, so it seems like they enjoy watching us play,” Doyle said. “Any time we see people out and around Iowa City, they stop us and thank us for how we play.”
Sunday’s home game against Michigan State, which will include a postgame ceremony to retire Gustafson’s jersey, is expected to draw the biggest crowd of the season. Gustafson, who played for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings last summer and is playing professionally this winter in Hungary, will be back for the ceremony. Approximately 10,000 tickets have been sold for the game — Carver-Hawkeye Arena seats 15,000.
“(Last season) still fresh in our minds, it’s still fresh in the fans’ minds,” Meyer said. “It’s going to be cool to recollect all of the memories.”
The Hawkeyes hope they can add to the streak as well.
“I think everyone’s having fun with it right now,” Doyle said.
Meyer said she’s plenty confident when she and her teammates play on the road.
“But when we’re at home,” she said, “and we’re in tight games at the end of the game, I have no doubt we’re going to win the game.
“I don’t know what it is, but there’s a special feeling about being in Carver.”