Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes happy to dance again after two-year absence

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the past two seasons, Selection Monday was a cruel joke for Iowa women’s basketball fans, who watched the program land on the wrong side of the bubble each time.

The day went much better this time around.

Megan Gustafson reacts as the Hawkeyes receive a six seed in the NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 12, 2018.

Back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years, Iowa was given a No. 6 seed on Selection Monday and will face 11-seed Creighton at 5 p.m. (CT) Saturday in Los Angeles. With a victory, the Hawkeyes would face the winner of No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 14 seed American on Monday. Iowa was placed in the Kansas City Regional.

“This is a really good feeling,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said, “just because we haven’t had that opportunity the last two years. I thought we handled that situation well the last couple years. But to be back in the dance, this is where Iowa wants to be every year.

“I’m really, really glad to be back again.”

Forced to deal with a shorthanded roster and injury issues throughout the year, Iowa (24-7) responded with a quality run from November to March. After a 12-1 nonconference showing, Bluder’s squad jumped right into Big Ten Conference play and kept going.

The early part of conference play was a treacherous stretch, but the Hawkeyes picked up ranked wins over Michigan and Ohio State to keep the momentum flowing. When the schedule eased up late, Iowa pounced. The Hawkeyes won their final seven regular-season games and reached the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals before falling to Minnesota.

Injuries to Tania Davis (torn ACL) and Makenzie Meyer (fractured hand) took their toll at times. But other than one stretch in mid-January where Iowa dropped four of five, the Hawkeyes never really let an extended stretch of futility materialize.

“We just kept believing,” junior standout Megan Gustafson said. “We had such a great nonconference schedule. We knew that we were a good team, and we had some really great wins coming from that skid. The Ohio State win, that really got us pumped up. And so I think just having that belief — that consistency that we had — really kept us going.”

Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen, left, and head coach Lisa Bluder talk with friends and family after receiving a six seed in the NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 12, 2018.

Much of that steadiness is credited to Gustafson, who has blossomed into one of the country’s elite forwards. The nation’s leading scorer (25.6 ppg) and fifth-leading rebounder (12.7 rpg) was named the media’s Big Ten player of the year and has landed on multiple all-American teams.

The Hawkeyes missed just six NCAA Tournaments between 1986 and 2015, but felt the bubble sting the last two years. They're more than happy to return to the national stage.

"We could’ve been playing anywhere, and I would’ve been so happy," Gustafson said. "Just being able to be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, it’s a surreal moment for sure.

"We have players who are stepping up who are young who are getting experience, which is really good. So our goal has been met — that we've made the NCAA Tournament — but now our new goal is to make some noise in the tournament."

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.