Paxton native facing problems in her 2nd season as Iowa coach

Paxton native facing problems in her 2nd season as Iowa coach

   IOWA CITY, Iowa  No need to remind Angie Lee what a difference a year can make.

   The Paxton native''s head coaching career, brief as it is, has been an annual excursion of 180-degree turns.

   "We''ve been on a very serious roller coaster," the University of Iowa women''s basketball coach said Wednesday.

   Last season was the ride of Lee''s life. A longtime Hawkeyes assistant, Lee was promoted by her alma mater to her first head coaching job at any level. Inheriting a group coming off an 11-17 campaign  Iowa''s first losing record since 1982-83  the then-33-year-old Lee answered all questions about whether she was up to the task. Under her guidance, the Hawkeyes went 27-4, finished first in the Big Ten Conference at 15-1 and advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.

   "Everything was fresh and new," said Lee, named national coach of the year by The Associated Press after last season. "There was a true sense of excitement and nowhere to go but up. And nobody was expecting anything of Iowa  new coach, 11-17, and not only a new coach, but her first time as a head coach."

   One year later, a bruised and battered Iowa team is plummeting from those heights. Losers of three of their last four games, the Hawkeyes are 9-8 overall and tied for fifth in the Big Ten at 4-4.

   And when the Hawkeyes visit Huff Hall at 7 p.m. Friday to play 25th-ranked Illinois, they''ll be limping in  figuratively and literally. While the losses have piled up, so have Iowa''s walking wounded:

    Leading scorer Angela Hamblin (14.7), hobbled by a hamstring strain, is listed as questionable after sitting out Iowa''s previous two contests. Hamblin was a huge thorn in the Illini''s side during the 1996 Big Ten tournament, scoring 18 points and grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds in the Hawkeyes'' 74-56 victory.

    Forward Tiffany Gooden has suffered back spasms since her car was hit from behind by another vehicle early this week. The preseason second-team All-American''s status for Friday also is uncertain.

    Center Tangela Smith, battling a lower-back injury all season, has fallen far below lofty expectations and out of the starting lineup. One of 20 preseason candidates for the Naismith College Player of the Year award, Smith is averaging 8.7 points and 4.8 rebounds. Her numbers last season were 13.6 and 7.0.

    The new starting center, Jenny Noll, suffered a broken nose Jan. 12 during a loss at Purdue. She''s continued to play despite the injury.

    Reserve center Malikah Willis played three games before her season was ended by a knee injury.

    Simone Edwards, scheduled to start at center Friday, also has contended with knee problems this season.

   Little wonder Lee has used nine different lineups through 17 games, one more than she used in 31 contests last season.

   "The biggest difference has been the health of our team," said Lee. "Last year, we were extremely healthy. This year ... every time we get on the verge of getting everybody back, somebody goes down."

   All those MIAs have wrecked havoc, Lee says, with the chemistry any starting lineup needs.

   "It''s one of those things where if you have a lot of injuries, that starts to play with your continuity," she said. "I think that''s been the case with us."

   The season began with high expectations all around. In eight different preseason polls, Iowa was listed as high as third nationally, and never lower than sixth. In the Big Ten coaches'' preseason poll, the Hawkeyes were virtually a consensus choice to repeat as champion, receiving all but one first-place vote.

   "We all came in with high expectation," said Lee, who had four starters back from last season. "You look at what they did last year, and we all felt so good about that.

   "Now, to struggle though situations you can''t control is very frustrating."

   That frustration hit its zenith for Lee on Sunday in a 75-63 loss to Michigan. Iowa had never before lost to the Wolverines at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But then the Hawkeyes are losing to a lot of teams at home that they used to mop up on. Sunday''s defeat was Iowa''s third straight at home and dropped their Carver-Hawkeye mark to 2-4. Last season, the Hawkeyes went 14-0 at home.

   Compounding the frustration was the fact that Michigan stung Iowa''s vaunted defense with 60.4 percent shooting from the field. This is the same Hawkeye defense that, in league games, ranks first in the Big Ten in field goal defense (40.4 percent) and second in scoring defense (61.6 points).

   "This last loss, it was extremely hard to swallow," Lee said. "We sort of hit rock bottom. It''s going to be interesting to find out the character of this team because that one, in my eyes, should never have happened."

   The Hawkeyes'' character check gets an acid test this weekend, when they play two of the top three teams in the Big Ten. After visiting an Illini team tied for second, Iowa on Sunday will host a Michigan State team atop the standings.

   "We''re going to go in and give it the best we have, regardless of the hand we''ve been dealt," Lee promised. "It presents us with a great opportunity. No question there are some things we can do to shake things up (in the Big Ten) in a very big way."

   Reason enough for Illini coach Theresa Grentz, who has injuries problems of her own at point guard, to be wary.

   "When I look at their talent and coaching staff, I don''t see a lot of problems," she said. "They are the champion until they are no more."

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