At the heart of Iowa women's success is the 'Iowa Girl'
...The state's long basketball tradition lives on in the Hawkeye coaches and what they teach their players
Columnist Jane Burns is a former sports and features writer for the Des Moines Register, as well as other publications and websites. Over the course of her career she’s covered pretty much everything, which is why her as-yet-to-be-written memoir will be called Cheese And Basketball: Stories From A Reporter Who Has Covered Everything.
By Jane Burns
Somewhere, E. Wayne Cooley is smiling.
The late executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union would love that Iowa’s appearance in the Women’s Final Four this weekend in Dallas creates a showcase for girls’ and women’s basketball in the Hawkeye State. Superstar Caitlin Clark, a Dowling Catholic graduate, is an “Iowa Girl” -- the moniker that Cooley proudly bestowed upon the state’s female athletes. So are four of the coaches – Lisa Bluder (Linn-Mar), Jan Jensen (Elk Horn-Kimballton), Abby Stamp (Winterset) and Jenni Fitzgerald (North Scott).
Sure, Wayne, who died in 2013, would be puffing his cigar with a smile on his face about all of that, but that’s not the whole reason he’d be grinning. There’s another quintessential Iowa aspect to the Women’s Final Four that begins on Friday and it’s there thanks to the Hawkeyes coaching staff:
To today’s players, the style of basketball that made Iowa famous once upon a time is just ancient history – from a different time, a different place, with shiny 1950s skirts or big old ’80s mall hair. Yet head coach Bluder and two of her assistants, Jensen and Fitzgerald, played it. And to those who know what to look for, they see traces of that old-school game in the team the entire country is watching right now.
“Our game, the six-on-six game, was such a pure game that it’s hard to beat the fundamentals of it,” said TV and radio analyst Laura Leonard, who played at Des Moines Roosevelt and Drake. “A lot of people are starting to watch women’s basketball because it is a more fundamental, pure basketball game. People appreciate that, and then you have the added attraction of a really great player who can do so many things.”
Leonard was referring to Clark, the Naismith Player of the Year who makes fans’ eyes pop with her long-distance three-pointers. But overall, she sees echoes of the six-player game in Clark’s teammate, 6-foot 3-inch Monika Czinano.
This season, it’s become a bit of a game to count how many times Czinano dribbles during a game, and it’s very few. After Iowa defeated Georgia in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Big Ten posted a video of each of her shots and counted the dribbles. Final tally: 20 points, zero dribbles.
That was a big part of the six-player game: only two dribbles allowed. Players had to make the most of those dribbles, if they used them at all, and rely more on footwork and movement. Jensen, nicknamed “The Post Whisperer” for her success in working with the inside players, played that way in high school. She’s passed on that knowledge to Czinano and her predecessor in that position, 2019’s national player of the year Megan Gustafson.
In high school, Jensen led the nation in scoring with a 66-point average. In college at Drake, she led the nation in scoring with a 29.6 average, showing that the six-player game translated just fine to college.
“One of the best players to ever play that position in six-on-six was Jan, so it’s easy for her to teach it,” Leonard said.
Leonard recently watched the Iowa PBS film, “More Than a Game,” about six-player basketball and it brought her to the current day, even with its old footage.
“It made you think about how the girls of little Garnavillo, Iowa, or Monticello or Montezuma, their post players were good. They knew the footwork, how to make themselves available for a pass,” Leonard said. “And that’s what Monika Czinano does. She puts herself in perfect position, pins her girl and calls for the ball. She gets great passes so she doesn’t have to put the ball on the floor.”
Many of those passes come from Clark, who besides being a national scoring leader has been among the national leaders for assists since her freshman season. And it’s in Clark that another former six-player star sees echoes of a game she still loves deeply.
Kristi Kinne Hayes averaged 52 points a game as a high school player at Jefferson-Scranton, then had a great college career at Drake, where she was the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year in 1995. She was in college when news came in 1993 about the end of six-player basketball in Iowa and she wore black all day in mourning.
“With six-on-six, or three-on-three, you had to be able to create shots,” Hayes said, referring to the players in the halfcourt game of six-player basketball. “Most teams use the offense until something opens. Caitlin and (Monika) do a great job creating a shot within the offense, and there’s a difference. And that’s what you had to do with six-on-six.”
Hayes was an assistant coach at Southern Illinois, Iowa and Oklahoma and put players through three-on-three, two-on-two or one-on-one drills. She wanted them to develop tools for creating a shot for themselves or a teammate.
Now it’s her children Hayes would like to see learn that aspect of the game, too. Her daughter Jillian plays for the University of Cincinnati and her son Jaxson plays for the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA. At 6-11, the younger Hayes can dunk with the best of them and is working on his outside shot, but his mom thinks something else is missing and isn’t shy about telling him.
“I tell him, ‘What you need to do to improve your game is learn to create your shots,’” Hayes said.
So it turns out there isn’t just a place in the NCAA Final Four for the Iowa six-player game. Who knows, perhaps one day we’ll see it in the NBA, too.
Thanks to Jane Burns for her perspective on the hottest topic in Iowa today.
Watch the Hawkeye next game on ESPN, Friday, 8 p.m. Central.
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