Iowa women's basketball: Making NCAA Tournament not enough for confident Hawkeyes

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Once the jubilation and joy subsided a bit Monday night, the answers shifted toward the future.

Yes, the Iowa women’s basketball team is more than elated to be back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. But the Hawkeyes aren’t trekking to Los Angeles for a weekend getaway. March satisfaction arrives with wins.

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.

“I feel like we’ve proven to ourselves and to others so many times this season that we’re such a great team,” senior forward Chase Coley said. “We can beat other great teams, and we’ve done it. Yeah, we’ve had some slip-ups in some games, but toward the end of the season is really when you start to clean all that up.

“I really feel like if we come together and play how we know how to play, we can really make a good run in this tournament.”

That run begins Saturday against 11-seed Creighton at 5 p.m. CDT inside UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. A win there would propel the No. 6 seed Hawkeyes into Monday’s second round, likely against the Bruins. UCLA hosts American in Saturday’s 3-14 matchup at 2:30 p.m. CST.

Before Selection Monday concluded, a little Iowa buzz had already surfaced. ESPN women’s basketball bracketologist Charlie Creme pegged the Hawkeyes as his “possible Cinderella” in his tourney picks, while espnW’s Graham Hays listed Iowa-UCLA as his “best potential second-round matchup.”

“I think this NCAA Tournament,” junior Megan Gustafson said, “is a great time to get our name — Iowa — on the national stage, contending.”

Doing so will require handling the March glitz, a new endeavor for most. Only two current Hawkeyes — Coley and redshirt junior Carly Mohns — were on Iowa’s Sweet 16 team three seasons ago, and neither had a huge role at the time. Mohns didn’t play in any of the three games, and Coley only saw a combined 19 minutes off the bench.     

That lack of experience can unfold one of two ways. Do the Hawkeyes become overwhelmed by the heightened circumstances and tourney glamour? Or does Iowa’s naivety play in its favor as it looks to become just the second No. 6 seed since 2014 to reach the tournament’s second weekend?

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Lisa Bluder directs her team in the first half against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second round of the Big Ten Conference Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Lisa Bluder is confident in the latter.          

“I feel like we’ve got a lot of good weapons right now," the Hawkeyes coach said. "I think we’re playing really good basketball.”

It should be a well-rested Iowa bunch heading to Los Angeles. By the time the Hawkeyes tip Saturday afternoon, it will have been more than two weeks since Iowa was eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament on March 2.

The Hawkeyes honed in on themselves last week, mixing in some practice work with a few days off sprinkled in between. Carving out time for complete self-evaluation can be difficult during the regular season, when it’s one opponent after another for months on end.

“We really got to focus on just tweaking some things in our offense and tweaking some things in our defense too,” sophomore Makenzie Meyer said. “Coach Bluder also gave us a couple days off, but when we were home, we were all making sure to get our shots up. Now, we’ll be able to start digging into Creighton. It’ll be a bit of an adjustment this week, just more focused on Creighton rather than ourselves.”   

Iowa already knows its own capabilities, having proven its worth against quality foes all year. On the season’s grand stage, the Hawkeyes believe they have the horses to make some L.A. noise.

“We’ve learned so many valuable lessons,” Gustafson said. “Being able to play against Florida State and only lose by one point, beat Ohio State, beat Michigan, beat these really good teams, have some overtime road wins, I think all those were huge in getting us that confidence. Having those big wins really gave us confidence, and I think we’re just going to keep it going from here.

“Our goal was to get into the NCAA Tournament, but I don’t think that’s enough. This is my junior year — I’ve only got one more year left — so I’m going to put my heart and soul into this tournament. I know everyone else is going to as well.”

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.