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Iowa women entering favorable part of their schedule.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Hawkeyes’ favorable final stretch marches on.

Thursday’s home showdown versus Penn State kicks off a prime opportunity for Iowa (18-6, 6-5 Big Ten Conference) to make some late noise heading into March, as four of the Hawkeyes’ last five opponents presently have losing conference records. The Nittany Lions (14-10, 5-6) are one of them, currently tied for ninth in the Big Ten.

“What we’ve talked a lot about is turning the calendar to February — we’re going to make this a great February,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday. “I think the team is playing with a really good feeling right now, and again, I know this opponent is going to be really tough — but I like the way that we feel about ourselves going in.”

Although it’s been a bit of a down year for Penn State, the Nittany Lions have owned Iowa of late. The Hawkeyes have dropped eight of the last 10 in the series, including three straight, and have just one home victory over Penn State since 2009.

“They’ve always brought their ‘A’ game, and it’s going to be no different Thursday,” junior Megan Gustafson said. “Every team is going to give us their best shot, so I think just being able to be consistent and keep that energy and focus the whole time (is important).”

Penn State boasts three double-figure scorers in Teniya Page (17.8 ppg), Amari Carter (14.7 ppg) and Jaida Travascio-Green (12.3 ppg) — three quick guards who can all do damage at any point. They’ve been tasked with guiding the Nittany Lions through a tough conference road slate, which has included losses to Michigan (89-69), Rutgers (70-65), Purdue (88-73) and Ohio State (94-64).

Defensively, Penn State will lean on traps and presses to try to create turnovers and careless mistakes. The Hawkeyes have been turnover-prone at different points throughout the year, and Bluder expressed a bit of concern given that Iowa hasn’t faced much relentless defensive pressure of late.

“It’s going to look, defensively, a lot different than what we’ve seen for the last three weeks,” Bluder said. “That kind of gets you worried because you get used to seeing a certain style of basketball, and then all of a sudden, it changes drastically.

“We’re now going to see a team that’s pressing and trapping Megan, and so we’re going to have to be able to adjust to those things.”      

But the Hawkeyes enter flying high following a perfect week. Two grind-it-out wins over Michigan State and Minnesota have Iowa back on track after three losses in a four-game span.

The Hawkeyes will be favored Thursday and in most of their games down the stretch. A quality finish could be the perfect boost into March.   

“I think it’s great having these wins right now,” Gustafson said, “and hopefully, we can keep it going. That’ll give us momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

“We did have a pretty rough stretch (at the beginning of conference play), with just the people we were playing against. And again, everyone in the Big Ten Conference is great. It’s nice having these home games, having the crowd behind us. And even though these teams are behind us or right next to us (in the standings), they’re really good teams — and we can’t count them out.”       

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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