By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Iowa’s women’s basketball team sits at 5-3, on a two-game losing streak with defeats to Connecticut and North Carolina State, and yeah, it’s early and yeah, it doesn’t sound so bad losing to those teams, but…
Lisa Bluder answered before the question was even finished. Playing in rare air, starting the season in the top five and being on the same floor with the best in women’s basketball is cool, but the Hawkeyes want more. They want to be a part of a March equation of excellence.
“We want to be there, too,” Bluder said. “We’re not right now. We’re just not. We have a choice — do we want to get better, do we want to put in the effort to get better, or do we want to stay an average team? Or maybe an above-average team. I’ll give us that.”
Above average isn’t good enough for the Hawkeyes. No, no. Not with this team. Not with this talent. Not with the opportunities they’ve seen, not with the opportunities looming.
Thursday’s 94-81 loss to No. 12 N.C. State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena stung the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes because of where they’re at and where they want to be.
Good is good, great is great. Excellence isn’t about settling.
“We have opportunities to be a really good team,” said All-American guard Caitlin Clark, who had 45 points but couldn’t bring her teammates along for a wild ride on a night when the Carver-Hawkeye crowd was itching for it. “We still have a lot of opportunities to show who we are and what we can do.”
This was one of those opportunities, and the Hawkeyes squandered it with a lack of defense. You win in December by getting stops, and when you learn how to do it consistently, you stand a much better chance of winning in March.
The Hawkeyes weren’t stopping the Wolfpack. They shot 55.4 percent from the field for the game — 71.4 percent in the second quarter, 52.9 percent in the third quarter, 61.1 percent in the fourth.
N.C. State outscored Iowa 31-28 in the fourth. Every Hawkeye make was answered with a Wolfpack make.
“Very disappointed in our defensive effort,” Bluder said. “Second, third, and fourth (quarters) were not good.”
Clark went through the checklist of failures like a mechanic going through an inspection list of problems with a sputtering car.
“I thought our ball-screen defense could have been better,” Clark said. “I thought our help defense could have been better. Literally all of it. I think all of it could have been better.”
Bluder pointed to the Wolfpack’s 46 points in the paint — territory, she said, the Hawkeyes usually own.
“When you give up 46 paint points, you’re not in help position,” Bluder said. “We were not in help position tonight, and we paid the price for it.”
“We didn’t have a sense of urgency,” senior forward McKenna Warnock said. “There was just a weird dullness on defense.”
There is just a weird dullness to the Hawkeyes right now, which sounds hard to believe given Clark’s offensive show. She was 16-of-28 from the field, 5-of-13 in 3-pointers, finishing one off her career high.
Those 46 points came in a loss to Michigan last season. She got 45 in this loss.
The show is fun, but it never seems to have that happy ending.
“I think every time I score 40 points, we lose,” Clark said.
Warnock had 15, but no other Hawkeye scored in double figures.
N.C. State coach Wes Moore looked at Clark’s numbers.
“What was Clark? Sixteen for, what, 28?” Moore quipped. “Keep shooting, honey. Shooting over 50 percent? Yeah, I’m fine with that.”
Iowa center Monika Czinano led the nation in field-goal percentage the last two seasons, but she got just four shots in this game, a combination of Wolfpack defense and an ineffectiveness by the Hawkeyes to get her the ball.
“I don’t know why we couldn’t get her the ball tonight, honestly,” Bluder said. “It’s maddening.”
Bluder went deeper. She pointed to Kate Martin, who was 7-of-10 from the field, 6-of-6 in threes, in Sunday’s 79-66 loss to UConn. Martin took just five shots in this game, only two threes.
“We didn’t just pass the ball well,” Bluder said.
The Hawkeyes had 10 assists on 27 field goals.
“That’s not Iowa basketball,” Clark said.
This isn’t the basketball expected by the Hawkeyes. They’ve had opportunities they’ve squandered and yeah, it’s early and yeah, they’re playing some of the nation’s best and yeah, it doesn’t sound so bad losing to those teams.
This is a team that wants much more.
Bluder was asked about the team’s depth of experience, a starting lineup of two fifth-year seniors, two seniors, and an All-American junior.
“We’re not really acting like it right now,” Bluder said, “and I don’t know why.”
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark drives to the basket in Thursday’s game against North Carolina State. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)