By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Ayla Guzzardo insisted on Thursday that her Southeastern Louisiana women’s basketball team was ready for the atmosphere of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The coach pointed out that the Lady Lions had already played on big stages this season, like LSU, where it can be conceded that the 6,592 Kim Mulkey disciples who showed up on that late November night probably made a little noise.
But there’s November non-conference noise and then March noise in Carver-Hawkeye and well, there’s a big difference.
“Fourteen thousand is loud,” Guzzardo said on Friday afternoon after Iowa defeated Southeastern Louisiana 95-43 in front of a sellout crowd of 14,382. “It’s loud and tough to call plays and tough to hear anything and tough to hear the refs call fouls.
Guzzardo admitted that it was a moment that the Lady Lions will appreciate.
“This is why we play and coach the sport,” Guzzardo said. “What they brought to women’s basketball is awesome. “We had fans shaking our hands on the way out, (saying) ‘Good fight, good fight.’ That’s what you want — people supporting women’s basketball.”
The Hawkeyes, the No. 2 seed in Seattle Regional 4, were too much for the Lady Lions. The rock stars that have been drawing this kind of attention put on a command performance.
It wasn’t just the offense, although Iowa did shoot 60 percent for the game and passed their nation-best scoring average of 87 1/2 points.
It was the defense, a zone that perplexed the Lady Lions, who made just 3-of-22 shots in the second half and scored just 11 points.
Iowa isn’t known for its defense — we’re just a couple of seasons removed from this being one of the worst defensive teams in women’s basketball.
But the Hawkeyes want to get to the Final Four, and you’re not going to get there without figuring out a way to stop, or at the very least slow, your opponent, whether it’s a 15 seed like Southeastern Louisiana or a 10 seed in Georgia in Sunday’s second round.
“You know, maybe our offense is better than our defense, but we still think we are a good defensive team,” said All-American guard Caitlin Clark. “We know our starting group has been together for, what, three years now? And maybe our first year we were not a great defensive team but we knew if we want to reach the Final Four this year we have to get better at defense.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on it. We’ve really bought into getting better. We know that your defense can always be there. Maybe the offense won’t always be there, but that is always something that you can fall back on and we will need to fall back on it.”
The Hawkeyes switched to the zone at the start of the second quarter, and Southeastern Louisiana wasn’t about to shoot them out of it.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder was thinking the long game, like Clark. It’s something that you have to have in the back of your mind if you’re taking care of the business at hand knowing in about 48 hours you’re going to play another game.
“Well, really, it was kind of like to preserve our legs a little bit,” Bluder said when asked why she stuck by the zone. “First of all, it was working and second of all, why run around and chase screens if you don’t have to? You know, when you’re going to play again on Sunday, it’s kind of nice to be able to sit in a zone and maybe not have to play all those screens.”
“I anticipated it,” Guzzardo said. “When you look at a Big Ten team, you think they can guard a little Southland school. I’ll be honest with you, you would think they could guard us man-to-man. But they went zone. Great game plan because we don’t shoot the three-ball well.
“But going zone was a great game plan in the second quarter. They went 2-3 zone and remained zone for the remainder of the game. You hope they go man because we think we could score a little better against man, but that game-plan adjustment for them was great.”
Southeastern Louisiana was allowing just 54 1/2 points per game this season, but the Hawkeyes roared by that number. Clark had a steady brilliance to her game — 26 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds. Center Monika Czinano had 22 points.
There was another moment when it was clear Bluder was playing the long game. Clark was flirting with a triple-double — no Hawkeye has had one in NCAA Tournament play since Sam Logic did it in 2015 — but when she got popped in the face driving to the basket in the fourth quarter, it was time for her to exit the game.
Granted, Bluder said, that would happen after she shot the two free throws.
“I could have had anybody shot those free throws, and I knew she would be madder than a pistol if I would have somebody else shoot those free throws other than her after she endured getting the smack to the face,” Bluder said, smiling.
But soon Clark would be heading to the bench, joining the rest of the starters, and joining in going crazy with the rest of the crowd when Taylor McCabe dropped in a 3-pointer or Shateah Wetering banking in her lone 3-pointer.
“It’s just really fun seeing them have their moment as well,” Clark said. “Us five starters, we get the bulk of the minutes, but those kids still come to practice every single day and work super hard and you see the time they spend in the gym doing extra conditioning or extra lifting and it’s fun to see them get in.
“And the crowd loves it, too.”
It’s another sellout Sunday, a 2 p.m. start in a game to be televised on ABC.
Big stages are best when they’re at their loudest.
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (right) battles Southeastern Louisiana’s Jen Pierre for a loose ball in Friday’s game. (Darren Miller for IowaCollegeHoops.com)