Sydney Affolter’s breakout is changing the game for Iowa women’s basketball: ‘My time’s now’

Jan Jensen is in the thick of delivering an answer when she cuts herself off.

Iowa women’s basketball’s associate head coach is speaking in the context of roster building. The Hawkeyes, who only have two transfers on their current roster, are an outlier in the modern landscape of college. Iowa’s philosophy, Jensen explains, is to create a foundation with high school recruiting and utilize the transfer portal to address needs, but not be reliant on it.

“If they believe in us, I want to believe in them,” Jensen says, “and really, really try to develop them.”

At one point, Jensen illustrates that by mentioning a specific name.

“Like Syd Affolter is a great example,” Jensen said. “She just liked it here, loved it, believed. And now she’s playing such an integral role this year.”

Sydney Affolter has. Very much so. Her latest performance came in the form of a 15-point, five-rebound night in Iowa’s 89-68 destruction of Colorado in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. She was also a team-high +32 in plus/minus. That has set up a highly-anticipated contest with LSU in the Elite Eight on Monday, a rematch of last season’s national title game.

March tends to be a perfect storm for stars to shine bright. And in this case, for a supporting cast member to find a new gear. This is what high-stakes basketball at the tail end of a grueling season can produce.

Affolter has fit right into that. In the absence of Molly Davis, Affolter’s breakout has come at a crucial time and has been game-changing fuel for Iowa’s March run.

“I dreamed of times like this since I was a little girl,” Affolter said Saturday. “But like I said before, I’ve been ready for moments and times like this since I was a freshman. And I’ve been working so hard. My time’s now. So I’m glad that I can execute for this team.”

Affolter was mostly an afterthought in her first two seasons at Iowa.

She averaged just 2.4 points per game in 56 appearances entering this season. Affolter took on a bigger role her junior campaign, starting three times during the regular season, but otherwise providing a spark off the bench. It was enough to later prompt star Caitlin Clark to post via social media “6POY. MY GOAT”, referring to Affolter, who had not been named the Big Ten’s Sixth Player of the Year.

But Iowa’s regular-season finale against Ohio State had presented some substantial angst. Davis, an X-factor and 3-point sniper for Iowa, went down with a right knee injury in an emotionally charged scene, where the crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena chanted her name as she was carried off.

It was another drop of uncertainty for whether the pieces around Clark would be enough. That is a question that has followed this team for a while now. The Hawkeyes lost starters McKenna Warnock and Monika Czinano from last year’s Final Four team.

If Iowa were going to achieve its hopes and dreams, it would need to find a way to complement Clark. For the most part, the Hawkeyes did that during the regular season.

But there is more pressure and less margin for error in March. Davis’ injury presented another hurdle. Iowa would need someone to fill those gaps.

The resounding answer to that has been Affolter.

During the regular season, Affolter averaged 7.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and two assists per game (all career-highs). But she has taken her production to another level since Davis went down. In six postseason games, all of which have been starts, Affolter is averaging 13 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.

“She’s made me a better player, and I hope I’ve made her a better player,” Kate Martin said. “We never go easy on each other in practice. I’m really glad she’s getting these minutes now to show the type of player she is.”

Affolter’s versatility has done wonders for Iowa.

Only once in those six postseason games has she failed to score in double-figures. She had 11 rebounds in Iowa’s win over Nebraska to claim the Big Ten Tournament title. She had eight assists in the game prior against Michigan. Listed at 5-foot-11, Affolter has a strong frame and can be a factor defensively. She credits her all-around game to her father Ed, who played collegiately at the University of Illinois Chicago.

“He’s been my coach since I was a little girl,” Affolter said. “He’s taught me most of what I know and really talked how important it is being able to score at all three levels. And being able to defend and rebound, more than anything.”

And not to be forgotten, Affolter has delivered in the clutch. One of Affolter’s crowning moments this season came against West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where she converted an and-one layup to give Iowa the lead late in the game and avoid an upset bid.

“She’s been somebody that’s just gritty,” Clark said after that West Virginia game. “She’s not afraid of the moment. She’s tough. She does a lot of the dirty work for us. And then she gets that and-one. I’m just happy for her. She deserves it.”

It’s worth circling back to the point Jensen was making earlier. In an era of college sports that has reality tilted by the transfer portal, Affolter has remained loyal to the program after only playing a minimal role in her first two seasons at Iowa.

Now, it’s difficult to imagine where they’d be without her.

“I knew how good of a player I was the moment I stepped on campus,” Affolter said. “I did play behind a lot of great players, for sure. And I think now in college, it’s so easy to hit the transfer portal. But I always think that the grass might not always be greener somewhere else. Like you can go somewhere else and have the same situation or worse or not (be) on a great team. But I love these girls, I love these coaches. I truly trusted the process and I knew my time was coming. And I was going to be ready for it.”


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