Iowa’s Hannah Stuelke faces ‘giant’ challenge vs. South Carolina’s 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso

CLEVELAND — In the wake of her team’s worst-played game of the season, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder had a choice to make.

Her offseason plan of competing with a traditional center and power forward on the floor concurrently was highlighted in a 65-58 home loss to Kansas State back in November. Bluder dabbled with the same type of offense the Hawkeyes used in their journey to the 2023 national championship game. But her personnel was different from that run, and Bluder knew it.

“I think everybody goes into the season with kind of a game plan, right?” Bluder said. “You go into a game with a game plan, and you think this is what’s going to be best. But you’ve got to make adjustments along the way. If it’s going astride, if it’s not going as well as you think, you’ve got to change things.”

Rather than sticking with the same lineup and expecting different results, Bluder adapted to her team’s strengths. She inserted now-injured guard Molly Davis into the starting lineup and shifted sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke to the five. Iowa decided to lean into its strength as an up-tempo offense. The change led to the desired result, but it wasn’t an easy transition for the 6-foot-2 Stuelke.

“Hannah had to adjust from something she wanted to be, which is the power forward, to something we needed her to be, and that was the center,” Bluder said. “There were a few growing pains in that, but she’s obviously adapted very, very well to that and now is embracing it.”

The Hawkeyes lead the nation in scoring (91.4 points per game) and 3-pointers per game (11) and have parlayed their line change to their second straight national championship appearance, this time against undefeated South Carolina — the same undefeated team the Hawkeyes beat in last season’s Final Four. Stuelke, who ranks second at Iowa in scoring at 14.1 points per game, has faced numerous bigger and more physical posts. She has enjoyed success and has waged a few losing battles, many of which have helped her improve. Now, in a figurative final exam, Stuelke faces her most difficult test of the season.

South Carolina’s 6-7 center Kamilla Cardoso has been a handful for nearly every opponent. In Friday’s Final Four victory, she scored 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds in just over 22 minutes. Cardoso’s length is an issue as is her rebounding prowess. She averages 14.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a contest and is relatively fresh after playing more than 30 minutes in just two games in the last four months.

“Obviously Cardoso is an amazing player,” Stuelke said. “I think it poses a big challenge for me, but staying physical and boxing out I think are my most important jobs as they are in every single game.”

It’s not just Cardoso who presents challenges to Stuelke. There’s forward Ashlyn Watkins (6-3), who grabbed 20 rebounds against N.C. State and 14 in the regional final against Oregon State. The Gamecocks’ rebounding margin of 12.3 ranks third nationally. The Hawkeyes’ rebounding margin is plus-7, but this matchup has similar elements to their regional final against LSU. Iowa was outrebounded by 17 in that game.

It’s not unusual for Stuelke to face accomplished interior players. All year, she battled against the Big Ten’s top posts like Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes, Nebraska’s Alexis Markowski and Ohio State’s Cotie McMahon. Often, Stuelke held her own. Sometimes, she didn’t.

In an overtime win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game, Stuelke scored 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds. She added 23 points against then-No. 2 Ohio State in the regular-season final. But when she traveled to Indiana, Stuelke was held to 10 points.

Stuelke has endured those same moments in the NCAA Tournament as well. In the Hawkeyes’ 71-69 win against UConn on Friday, she led all scorers with 23 points. When Iowa struggled in the first quarter, Stuelke kept the Hawkeyes afloat with 6 points. During a pivotal third quarter in which the Hawkeyes erased a 6-point deficit, Stuelke added 11 points. It all happened against UConn’s talented and lengthy Aaliyah Edwards (6-3).

The performance ran counter to how Stuelke performed against LSU. She picked up two quick fouls that sent her to the bench, then a third to open the third quarter. She fouled out after 21 minutes while facing one of the nation’s top rebounding combinations in Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow. Reese grabbed 20 boards.

“I don’t think I boxed out very well in that game,” Stuelke said.

Mentality and confidence are critical for Stuelke, and Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen often builds up her pupil before games. Before the Hawkeyes faced UConn, Jensen told Stuelke, “This is your time.”

“I just thought she met the moment,” Jensen said. “That’s why I just told her, ‘Hey, you proved you’re one of the best bigs on the floor tonight.’ And there wasn’t a doubt.”

Stuelke compensates for her lack of height with quickness. She honed those skills as a sprinter at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Washington High School, where she competed in the 55-, 100- and 200-meter dashes in indoor and outdoor track. Her sprinting background shows when she runs the floor, especially when her fellow bigs try to keep up with her in transition.

“In track, you get that gun and you just have to go,” Stuelke said. “You have no other choice. Here, you’re in your lane just running as hard as you can, and I try to picture that when I’m on the floor just getting down and being the first one there.”

“I think with bigger players, sometimes I can get a little step on them. I’m quick on the inside. I think just staying aggressive for me and not going in scared will be really important.”

Stuelke has developed post skills in the half court, but Iowa also uses her athletic ability to combat bigger and stronger post players without always playing on the block. Often that’s placing her to the high post so she can drive on her opponent rather than always battling in tight quarters.

“We have all the confidence in the world in her down there,” Iowa guard Gabbie Marshall said. “She gets to her spot and holds her seal really well. She’s really good at finishing so I think she has thrived at that five position. Even at the five people have to guard her for the drive because she’s gonna go right around you if you give her that way.”

This entire season has prepared Stuelke for this moment. She had a 47-point game against Penn State, which stood as an arena record for seven days. Stuelke had double-doubles in consecutive NCAA Tournament wins against West Virginia and Colorado. Now, her greatest test awaits her — as does the greatest prize.

“She knows she can do it,” Bluder said. “Every challenge gets bigger. Look at the challenges she’s had already in this tournament. Hannah has grown up throughout this tournament, and she’s going to have an unbelievable challenge (Sunday).”

(Photo of Hannah Stuelke: Matthew Holst / Getty Images)

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