ESPN Associated Press
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Lisa Bluder’s idea turned into history.
The Iowa coach came up with the plan for her team to play an outdoor game at Kinnick Stadium, with the hope of setting a women’s basketball single-game attendance record.
Iowa did that, and more.
The Hawkeyes’ 94-72 exhibition win over DePaul in the “Crossover at Kinnick” on Sunday drew 55,646 fans, almost doubling the previous record of 29,619 set by Connecticut and Oklahoma in the 2002 NCAA championship game at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
“You know, you can have an idea and it could fall flat if nobody shows up,” Bluder said. “But, man, Hawk fans showed up today. Fifty-five thousand, breaking the record, getting to play outside. … It was a dream. It really was. It was just fabulous.”
“Fifty-five thousand? That’s pretty incredible,” said Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, the reigning national player of the year, who put up a triple-double of 34 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. “It’s hard to kind of imagine yourself playing basketball in front of 55,000.”
Bluder’s idea for an outdoor game came to her when 9,000 fans showed up for a campus celebration in April upon the Hawkeyes’ return from the NCAA championship game against LSU.
Sunday’s game was played under partly cloudy skies, with temperatures in the 50s and a gusty wind swirling around the north end zone where the court was set up.
“Great weather,” Bluder said. “It was raining all week, and then great weather today? I’m so thankful.”
The wind played havoc with some of the shots. The Hawkeyes were 36-of-73 from the field but just 6-of 22 on 3-pointers and 16-of-30 on free throws.
Clark hit one of her familiar long-range 3-pointers early in the second quarter, but she also air-balled a free throw in the second half.
“It was a little windy,” Clark said. “The cold was perfectly fine. It was a bit chilly, and I’m glad we play an indoor sport. I promise I’ll never air-ball a free throw again. The wind took that one, for sure.”
The game was Iowa’s answer to August’s “Volleyball Day in Nebraska,” an outdoor doubleheader featuring the national power Nebraska Cornhuskers and three other in-state college teams that drew 92,003 to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln for the highest documented attendance ever for a women’s sporting event.
“I think this was amazing,” DePaul guard Michelle Sidor said. “Sixty thousand people coming out for women’s basketball was pretty special.”
Women’s and girls basketball has a long and rich history in Iowa. Girls played six-on-six high school basketball more than a century ago — three offensive players, three defensive players, only two dribbles and none allowed to cross half court. The girls’ basketball state tournament, first held in 1920, was a huge event televised statewide and in neighboring states until the five-player game took over in the 1980s.
Last year, the Hawkeyes ranked second nationally in attendance and Iowa State was seventh.
“We’ve had basketball here since the 1920s,” Bluder said, noting that associate head coach Jan Jensen’s grandmother is in the state girls high school hall of fame. “I mean, this is deeply rooted in this state. So it’s just perfect that it was here.”
Iowa forward Hannah Stuelke, who grew up in nearby Cedar Rapids, said, “Breaking the record in our home city, my home state, is really amazing. I think it’s just really cool being able to change the game and change people’s mindset on basketball.”
Players and coaches from both teams also participated with the crowd in “The Hawkeye Wave,” the tradition of fans at Kinnick waving to young patients and their families who are watching games through the windows at the adjacent Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
Proceeds from the game are being directed to the hospital. A check for $250,000 was presented during a break in the game. Among the attendees were former Iowa players Megan Gustafson, the 2019 national player of the year, and Kathleen Doyle, the 2020 Big Ten player of the year.
“Before the game, I just talked to them about this being a historic day for us,” Bluder said. “How we were playing for more than just ourselves. Playing for the university, fighting for the children’s hospital. We just talked about playing for everybody else and and not for ourselves.”
Bluder’s team has never been more popular in the state. The program is coming off its best season, Clark is the returning Associated Press player of the year and a show-woman with her deep 3-pointers. Every home game this season is sold out.
“It’s hard to really wrap your head around everything that’s happening,” Clark said. “Obviously, you can imagine it but it’s never the same until you’re actually in the experience enjoying it and loving it.”