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Iowa women's basketball coach Lisa Bluder talks about the Hawkeyes cracking the top 25. Dargan Southard/HawkCentral

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder and players Tania Davis, Megan Gustafson and Alexis Sevillian met with the media Wednesday afternoon, in advance of the Hawkeyes’ in-state showdown Sunday at Northern Iowa.

Iowa upended Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 85-45, last Saturday to bring the Hawkeyes to 10-1 on the year — the program’s most productive start since the 2013-14 season. The recent surge led to Bluder’s squad cracking both the Associated Press and USA Today/Amway Coaches Poll at No. 25.

Here are some of the key takeaways and observations from Wednesday’s press conference:

Target enlarged

Although coaches and players undoubtedly obsess less over rankings than media members and fans do, Bluder said seeing her Hawkeyes ranked for the first time since midway through the 2015-16 season validated  what Iowa has produced so far.

The trade-off is now the target on her team grows.

“I’m really happy for our team and our program, but at the same time, we also know it puts a target on your back,” Bluder said. “It’s funny — when you go from No. 26 to No. 25, you’ve all of a sudden got a bigger target on your back because everyone wants to take down a top-25 team. So we have to be aware of that as well.”

That pressure, though, is what Iowa wants as the nonconference schedule winds down. The Hawkeyes have already toppled four 2017 NCAA Tournament teams, nearly knocked off a top-15 squad and ended a 28-year losing streak at Hilton Coliseum.

Two more in-state matchups sit between now and the Big Ten Conference schedule, and Iowa hopes to keep momentum flowing by embracing its newfound status.

“We actually have a picture frame of (former tennis star) Billie Jean King in our locker room that says, ‘Pressure is privileged,’” Sevillian said. “So to have pressure on our back, yeah it means something, but it’s privileged.

“People are coming for us for a reason. We’re obviously good and we’re going to prove teams wrong if they think otherwise.”

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In-state importance

With Iowa owning just four Division I teams, extra emphasis is always placed on in-state matchups even if teams are trending in opposite directions. Predicting outcomes can often be a daunting challenge.

So even though Northern Iowa sits at 3-6 and has dropped four of its last five heading into Sunday’s showdown, the Hawkeyes are more than cognizant of what can occur when two of the state’s finest go head to head.

“Records kind of need to be thrown out at this point, especially against UNI, Drake and Iowa State,” Gustafson said. “… I think those rivalries are almost bigger here than anywhere else, so having those and having everyone from every team just be really excited about the rivalries is what’s going to make it close.”

Iowa did throttle the Panthers last season, 88-39, in Iowa City, but UNI still went dancing along with Drake and Iowa State.

The Hawkeyes remained home.

“We have a lot of fire and excitement coming into this game — just knowing that they made it to the NCAA Tournament last year, and we beat them by (49) on our home court,” Sevillian said. “I feel like that just gets us excited to go onto their home court and take them down.”  

After graduating three starters, the Panthers look a bit different from their tourney squad a season ago — but playmakers are still in abundance. Redshirt senior Kennedy Kirkpatrick leads the scoring at 11.6 points per game, and sophomore Megan Maahs averages double figures as well.

Coralville native Mikaela Morgan, Ellie Howell and Heidi Hillyard round out the starting five, but UNI does possess an extended bench with five other players averaging double-digit minutes per contest.

“We know going in that playing at the McLeod Center is not easy — it’s a real tight environment — and we’ve had our share of close games at their place,” Bluder said. “They play a lot of players, so they’re going to have a lot of rotations going in and out.”

A chance to breathe

After beginning the season with a flurry of games — eight in 17 days to be exact — the Hawkeyes’ schedule has hit a bit of a lull with finals in full swing. Sunday’s game will mark just Iowa’s second contest in a 14-day span, giving players a chance to breathe before the Big Ten slate commences.

"I like it," Davis said. “Some players may not like it, just because you’re not playing those back-to-back-to-back games and could possibly get out of game shape.

“But I honestly like it, just because we get to work on ourselves. Personally, I get to get better by getting up more shots during practice. The team gets to get better by working on our weak spots, so I like it even though it’s a long spurt (between games) and everything’s spread out. I think it’ll be helpful for us all."             

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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