Commentary

Taylor leads Iowa into second round

Louisville, which also looked sharp and crisp in opener, awaits Hawkeyes

Originally Published: March 23, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Bethany Doolittle didn't really want to pick between teammates Theairra Taylor and Samantha Logic. The question: Who would be the last one standing if they both were on "Survivor"?

Doolittle, Iowa's junior center, decided to go with Logic, because probably nobody would outlast the Hawkeyes' gritty point guard at anything. However ...

"Thea has that heart. She'll go through whatever. She's witty and smart," Doolittle said. "They'd make an awesome team, like on 'Amazing Race.'"

They've also been a terrific guard combo for the Hawkeyes. And when it comes to "surviving" tough times with injuries, Taylor takes a backseat to no one.

"She's a huge role model to everybody on our team for her perseverance," Doolittle said. "She epitomizes our program, on and off the court. And she's always a blast to be around."

All of which is why it was especially gratifying to Iowa coach Lisa Bluder to see Taylor come up so big in the No. 6 seed Hawkeyes' 87-65 victory over No. 11 Marist in an NCAA tournament first-round game Sunday.

[+] EnlargeIowa
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallTheairra Taylor, center, had 22 points and hit a career-best five 3-pointers as Iowa beat Marist.

Taylor had a team-high 22 points, which included a career-best five 3-pointers. She was 8-of-11 from the field, adding seven rebounds and three steals. The kind of game that a fifth-year senior who has overcome three ACL injuries should remember fondly the rest of her life?

"I hope so," Bluder said. "She should never forget this one. She's been very good the last two months for us, and this team loves her. They want to win for her, badly.

"She, in my opinion, has always played her best basketball during the NCAA tournament. Kind of when the prize is the biggest. I hope that continues on Tuesday."

Bluder will need Taylor, Logic, Doolittle and the rest of the Hawkeyes to be at their best for a very tough second-round matchup against No. 3 seed Louisville. The Cardinals played the first game here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, and they looked flat-out terrific in taking apart No. 14 seed Idaho 88-42.

Louisville had five players score in double figures, led by Sara Hammond's 16 points. Shoni Schimmel got her first double-double of the season with 10 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. The Cardinals shot 57.4 percent from the floor -- including 71 percent in a second half in which coach Jeff Walz liberally substituted -- and had just nine turnovers.

It was as crisp and sharp an NCAA opener as Walz could have hoped for, and it sets up this opportunity for the Cardinals: Beat the Hawkeyes on their home court Tuesday, and then Louisville gets to go home to host a regional.

"They're going to have great fans, a loud environment," Walz said of the Hawkeyes. "But that's what you want. The last thing you want is to play in front of nobody."

Iowa (27-8) finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten and lost the league tournament title game to Nebraska. Sunday, the Hawkeyes -- like the Cardinals -- played very well with little rust evident despite the two weeks between games that many NCAA tournament teams had.

All five Iowa starters scored in double figures, as Doolittle followed Taylor with 21 points. Then there was -- ho-hum -- almost another triple-double for Logic, who finished with 11 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds. She went to the floor after being inadvertently hit in the face in the second half, and briefly was on the bench. Key word: briefly. She shook it off and checked back in soon.

"Our chemistry has been amazing," Taylor said of playing alongside Logic. "She loves to pass, and I like to get out and run."

That Taylor is still running up and down a basketball court for Iowa is a testament to her determination and hard work through three rehabs with her knee injuries. She was injured first in high school, then again after just 10 games her freshman season at Iowa. Then in practice before what would have been her sophomore season -- bam, another ACL tear.

Taylor had come out of St. Paul, Minn., with great promise. Now there she was in the fall of 2010 facing knee rehab for a third time. Bluder told Taylor that she'd already endured a lot, physically and mentally, and that she should not feel an obligation to come back to play basketball. She assured Taylor she could keep her scholarship, finish her education, and stay with the program in another capacity.

But Taylor was determined to return to the court yet again.

"They had a lot of confidence in me during recruiting, that I could be a program-changer," Taylor said of the Iowa coaches. "I felt like a letdown. I didn't want to go out that way.

"I chose Iowa because it felt like family here, and I knew if things didn't work out with basketball, I'd still be happy. And just my luck, the first two years, I wasn't playing because I was hurt ... but I was still happy. I owed it to them to come back and play my best basketball."

[+] EnlargeShoni Schimmel
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallShoni Schimmel and Louisville are Iowa's next opponent.

If it sounds like Taylor is a young woman with a very grown-up perspective, she is. Consider something else she said about her loyalty to Iowa: That ACL surgeries "aren't cheap," and she was grateful for the investment that the school made to get her healthy again.

Taylor sat out 2010-11, and then came back as a redshirt sophomore for 2011-12. She felt good, but she had to learn to let go of the fear that all injured players face when they're ready to push themselves hard again on the court.

"We know the physical anguish players go through with injuries, but there are also the mental demons," Bluder said. "For her first year back when she was healthy, those demons flared up. She was vomiting before games and practice ... but she took care of it. She went to our sports psychologist here at Iowa, and she got it under control. And now, look at her. She plays fearlessly."

Taylor was a role player as a sophomore, but has started the past two seasons. She averaged 8.7 points as a junior, and is at 12.4 this season for a balanced Hawkeyes team that has all five players averaging in double figures.

As a Minnesotan, she is a big fan of the WNBA's Lynx. Asked her favorite player, she said it's a tough choice because, "There so many great ones there; it's like an all-star team. But I'll say Rebekkah Brunson, because she plays so hard. I just really admire that."

Taylor's parents, Michelle and Theodore, moved to Iowa City when she came to play for the Hawkeyes.

"My dad loves to watch me play; I don't know what he's going to do when I graduate, to be honest," she said, then laughed. "He's probably going home to watch film on Louisville right now.

"He kind of lives and dies with it. And my mom balances it out. They've been to every game since I've been here, even when I wasn't playing. They've given me such wonderful support."

Tuesday will be the last game their daughter will play at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It might also be the last of Taylor's college career. Or the Hawkeyes might pull an upset and advance to the Sweet 16.

No matter what happens, though, Taylor has made it all the way to her senior season, and will play in a marquee NCAA tournament game on her home court against a team that went to the Final Four last year.

She will always be able to look back and say no matter how tough the road got, she was indeed a survivor. Could there be a better example of what March Madness is really all about?

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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