Czinano was a steady hand, pillar of strength for Iowa

While holding the tournament trophy Iowa won, forward Monika Czinano (25) reacts to being named to the all-tournament team after the Hawkeyes defeated Ohio State for the Big Ten title on Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Minneapolis. Iowa won 105-72. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Lost in the shuffle of Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Kim Mulkey’s usual antics, LSU torching the nets, dubious officiating and everything that made the 2023 NCAA women’s basketball championship one for the ages was the quiet — yet memorable — farewell of Iowa senior Monika Czinano.

The Hawkeye center fouled out with over six minutes remaining in Sunday’s title bout after scoring 13 points and pulling down six rebounds. The disqualification ended a frustrating afternoon for Iowa’s often-overlooked and underappreciated star, who found herself in early foul trouble against the Tigers and — like her team — never could quite get into her usual rhythm with the national crown on the line.

Czinano was undoubtedly the most disappointed person in the building at that moment. If she’d gone to the bench and let the emotions get the best of her, fans wouldn’t have been surprised — or necessarily blamed her.

Instead of sulking, Czinano kept her head up, immediately tracking down reserve post player Addison O’Grady and saying, “come here…you’ve got it.” She shrugged off people attempting to console her, instead shouting instructions and supporting her team from the bench without missing a beat.

With or without her, despite the long odds at that point, Czinano knew Iowa still had a game to try and win.

The postgame scene was more of the same. Czinano was the program’s pillar of strength; she literally offered Clark a shoulder to cry on during a touching moment between the two Hawkeye legends outside the locker room. She would later say, with her eyes still red and tearful, “I just hope my legacy is … somebody who played this game and showed that you can be intense, but also have so much fun with that. I play basketball to be a role model for younger kids who have grown up bigger and stronger and just kind of feel a little bit awkward. That’s where I found a safe haven: in basketball.”

As a sophomore four seasons ago, the 6-foot-3 Czinano found herself facing the unenviable task of replacing National Player of the Year and Hawkeye icon Megan Gustafson on the low blocks. The former three-star recruit from Watertown, Minn. not only embraced the challenge but became a legend in her own right, scoring 2,413 career points to rank third all-time at Iowa behind only Gustafson and Clark. Czinano shot a remarkable 67 percent from the field over the course of her entire career.

When Czinano and Clark were together at the postgame podium, they were asked to comment on the impact this particular Hawkeye women’s team had on the sport during their tournament run. Rather than discussing her own accolades, Czinano’s attention immediately shifted to Clark: “(Caitlin) is a phenomenal basketball player. She’s shown that time and time again. But I think the biggest thing is the way she holds herself and the way she plays the game. She’s doing it the right way … the fun way, and being a role model for little kids who want to grow up and be like here. That’s a great thing.

“She’s been doing it since she decided to play basketball. It’s a progression to this point. We all know what a phenomenal basketball player she is, but it’s the person she is (off the court) that’s inspiring these kids as well.”

Czinano later reflected on her time at Iowa, adding, “I wouldn’t have wanted to do this anywhere else, with any other team, with any other group of people. So it’s truly been an honor. I just hope people saw how much fun I played with. I love this game, and I love it for the team. Basketball is fun to me, but I didn’t even like it all the time growing up. I love being on a team and feeling like a part of something. That’s what I felt here at Iowa.”

The Hawkeyes will move on without Czinano; Clark returns next season, along with most of Iowa’s supporting cast. Post players O’Grady and Hannah Stuelke will continue to get better, and head coach Lisa Bluder will undoubtedly shore up any other glaring weaknesses on the recruiting trail or transfer portal.

Replacing Czinano’s selfless leadership, on the other hand, will be easier said than done. Clark knows this. So does Bluder. Iowa should be a Top-5 team and a legitimate championship-level contender again in 2023-24, but the Hawks aren’t ready to turn the page just yet. The emotions are too raw; the reality of the moment, still real.

Monika Czinano will always be remembered as a pivotal player on a team that helped grow and maybe even transform women’s college basketball. She wasn’t flashy or flamboyant; she didn’t shoot three-pointers from the logo or garner attention with her style. Nor did she seek it.

Czinano just worked. Relentlessly. And when the time came to handle adversity or stand tall in defeat, Czinano stiffened her upper lip and did what she does best: she walked the walk.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt


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