The Iowa women's basketball team was riding high entering Big Ten play -- they had gone 11-2 in non-conference action and while that included a painful collapse against Iowa State, overall they had looked solid and appeared to have reloaded well after losing one of the greatest senior classes in program history a year ago. Iowa even started out 2-0 in Big Ten play, recording another solid win over Nebraska on the road and an emotional home win over Rutgers. Since that win, though, things have gone very sideways: the Hawkeyes have lost four out of their last five games, highlighted (lowlighted?) by last night's home loss to Penn State.
Before last night's stumble, all of Iowa's losses in this recent bad spell were explainable. The first loss came at Michigan -- a decent team, on the road, and a game where the Wolverines got red-hot in the fourth quarter. OK, sure -- that was a bit of a toss-up game. The second loss came at home against a top-10 Maryland team. OK, fine -- the Terps are really good. Iowa broke up that brief losing skid by eking out a close win over Wisconsin (their 16th straight win over the Badgers) in Madison, 57-54. They followed up that win with a road collapse against Michigan State (Iowa led 36-23 at half but got outscored 57-37 in the second half). Last night's game was supposed to be the oasis in a desert of tough games. Instead Iowa got blown out at home by a Penn State team that was 6-11 overall and 1-5 entering the game. Yeesh.
So what's been the problem with Iowa during this bad stretch? Lots of things, but three things in particular stand out:
Cold shooting: Iowa shot 38% against Maryland and even worse (35%) last night. Iowa's three-point shooting was also very poor in those games (18% against Maryland, 16% against Penn State). Ice cold shooting also doomed Iowa against Michigan State in the second half of that loss -- 36% from the floor, 30% from three-point range. Iowa's not a particularly defensively stout team, so any inability to score points really ends up hurting them.
Bad defending: Speaking of that defense... Maryland shot 47% from the floor, including 53% from long range and built a 40-30 lead at halftime. Michigan State shot 41% fromthe floor (and just 20% from distance), but they shot 61% from the floor in the second half. (Also critical? They shot a whopping 28 free throws in the second half, making 22 of them.) Penn State shot 49% from the floor (33% from deep) and were especially hot from the outset (59% in the first half, 43% from three), when they built a 46-38 halftime lead that they would never relinquish.
Fourth quarters: Finishing games has not been a strong suit for Iowa during this recent skid. Maryland outscored Iowa 16-9 in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin outscored Iowa 19-6 in the fourth quarter (in a game that Iowa won somehow). Michigan State outscored Iowa 34-26 in the fourth quarter. Iowa flipped the script in the fourth quarter last night, outscoring Penn State 20-14. Iowa was also outscored 30-13 by Michigan in the loss that kicked off this recent bad spell. Overall, Iowa's been outscored 113-74 in the fourth quarter over the last five games. That's a bad, bad trend. (Obligatory fatigue mention: Iowa played five games in 12 days between January 4 and January 16; they went 2-3 in those games.)
Turnovers: We identified this as a potential pain point for Iowa heading into Big Ten play and it's lived up (down?) to that prediction. Iowa turned the ball over 17 times against Michigan, which turned into 26 Wolverine points. Iowa turned the ball over 16 times against Maryland; the Terps turned those giveaways into 18 points. Iowa turned the ball over just 13 times against Wisconsin; those turned into 8 Badger points. Iowa turned the ball over 18 times against Michigan State; the Spartans scored 21 points from those giveaways. Iowa limited their turnovers to just 12 against Penn State (which became 10 PSU points), but that (and the Wisconsin game) were exceptions in this run.
Ally Disterhoft has been her usual reliable self for Iowa (14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg during this stretch, shooting 48% from the floor), but her supporting cast has been inconsistent during this run. Chase Coley had a pair of double figure games (18 on 7/10 shooting and 16 on 7/10 shooting) against Michigan and Penn State that bookended three games in which she scored a combined 14 points. She also had just 13 rebounds during those five games. Freshman big Megan Gustafson started off this stretch of games well (14 points against both Michigan and Maryland), but just 17 points total since then. Whitney Jennings scored in double figures in four of the five games but had just 15 assists over those games. But no player has embodied Iowa's funk more than Alexa Kastanek, who's scored just 29 points on 6/30 (!) shooting from deep. Kastanek was expected to help Iowa replace Melissa Dixon this year but her outside shot has really struggled. Hopefully Iowa can get more consistent play from her -- and the rest of the team -- over the next few games.
Iowa was down to a #8 seed in the most recent bracketology; after last night's bad loss against Penn State, they're going to be lower in the next update (unless they can get a big road win over Purdue this weekend). Iowa's made the NCAA Tournament eight straight years under Lisa Bluder, but at the moment it looks like they might be in a real fight to make it nine appearances in a row this year.
NEXT: Iowa heads to West Lafayette to take on Purdue (14-4, 5-2 B1G) on Sunday (2 PM CT, BTN).