THE MONDAY TIPOFF: Hawkeyes’ Lineup Has Been The Perfect Combination


The same five, together 90 times.

Caitlin Clark. Kate Martin. Gabbie Marshall. McKenna Warnock, Monika Czinano.

Those five were introduced as Iowa’s women’s basketball starters 90 times — a combination of star power and players who do their job and do it well.

A combination that has the Hawkeyes in the Final Four.

They’ve been together so long, the number of starts seemed staggering to them when someone mentioned it after Sunday’s 97-83 NCAA Tournament regional final win over Louisville.

“Wow, that’s a lot of games,” said Czinano, the fifth-year senior who is one of the nation’s dominant post players. “It means a lot, especially for all five of us. We’ve been working on our games collectively as a starting five for so long, working on our relationships with each other, just everything.”

The combination is perfect — Clark is the All-American guard, Czinano has led the nation in field-goal percentage twice, Marshall is the 3-point shooter who is also the lineup’s best defender, Warnock can score inside and from the perimeter and crashes for rebounds, and Martin is considered the “glue” player who does everything well.

There have been times in the last couple of seasons when Iowa coach Lisa Bluder could have been tempted to make changes to the lineup. A bad loss could have meant a shakeup. On-court struggles, like Marshall’s shooting slump earlier this season, can lead to a change.

Other than injury or illness, though, Bluder knew not to tinker with her starting five.

“Experience is a great teacher,” Bluder said. “They have just had that and they have been able to develop bonds over that time. They have learned lessons from different situations.”

That experience means something in March. It’s knowing the pressure of big games, knowing not to panic, knowing when to push the ball and when to hold on.

Knowing how to win.

Take the start of Sunday’s game. Iowa was down 8-0 with 7:45 to play in the first quarter. It’s an early moment that can determine the course of the rest of the 40-minute game.

All Iowa did from that point was score 97 points and control a Louisville team that had its own been-there-done-that NCAA tournament experience that the Hawkeyes were able to conquer.

“I just think we are such a veteran team, that everyone just kind of knew we had to stay true to ourselves and just be ourselves in that moment,” said Warnock, the unassuming forward who shows a little more emotion these days as her career winds to its end. “You could falter. I mean, that could have blown up a lot worse than it did. And I’m really proud of this group and we really just focused on our defense one step at a time and we knew that our defense leads to our offense.”

“There’s always hard moments,” Clark said. “Not everything’s going to go your way. And we started the game with a really hard moment. We were down 8-0, but were lucky enough that we have a group that is old enough to understand it’s not going to bother us. We came out and changed our defense and really from there I thought we played really, really good basketball.”

There was a time, after last season, when Bluder thought she would have to come up with a new combination. But Czinano’s decision to come back for her fifth year erased that thought.

Czinano is a crucial piece of what the Hawkeyes do, and having an inexperienced post player would have meant some bumps, especially at the beginning of the season.

Instead, the Hawkeyes built on the momentum of last season’s Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles.

“When Monika said she was going to come back for a fifth year we really believed that we could do something great with this team that was coming back,” Bluder said. “So that was a huge portion of this. I mean, if Monika wouldn’t have come back it would have been really, really, really hard to do. And so we’re very thankful that she chose to come back for a fifth year.”

Every defeat has been an education. The second-round loss to Creighton in last season’s tournament was offseason motivation. And the Hawkeyes haven’t lost since the 96-68 loss to Maryland on February 21 that ended their Big Ten regular-season title hopes.

“I honestly just think that it’s our confidence in each other,” Warnock said. “I think we’ve had those experiences. I just think it’s our ability to just respond in all those different situations. Since we had those experiences, I think that that really set us up for success this year and when you don’t have those experiences, you can’t learn. So we were able to learn in so many different facets, especially throughout the Big Ten season.”

Chemistry is never overrated in college basketball. It can get you through the dog days of the conference season in late January and February, and it gets you through March.

This starting five won’t be together much longer — Czinano’s eligibility is done at the end of this season, and Warnock has said she won’t pursue a fifth season.

But they know they have one more game, and maybe two.

“I’m so thankful for every single person, not just the starting five,” Czinano said. “Everybody on our team deserves this. Everybody puts in the work. So there’s no other group I would rather go 90 games with, truly.”

Photo: Iowa’s Monika Czinano reacts after Caitlin Clark scores in Friday’s NCAA Tournament win over Colorado. (Brian Ray/

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