IOWA CITY, Ia. — As promising as this Iowa women’s basketball season has been so far, there’s only one way for the Hawkeyes to truly maximize a special year.
“We talked a lot about that Tuesday in practice,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
Lofty goals are well within reach after Sunday’s emotional win over then-No. 8 Maryland. But the Hawkeyes don’t have them wrapped up yet. For No. 10 Iowa (21-5, 12-3 Big Ten Conference) to secure a league title and hosting opportunities for the NCAA Tournament, the Hawkeyes must finish the job down the stretch.
That focus begins anew Thursday at Indiana (17-10, 6-9) for the first of two road games in five days. Iowa then travels to Nebraska on Monday before ending the regular season at home against Northwestern. All are winnable games, but they're ones that can trip up the Hawkeyes if they aren’t locked in.
“It’s been really important to have that refocus,” senior Megan Gustafson said. “Maryland was a great win. It was amazing, but we’ve got to move on and really finish strong here if we want to even get a share of the Big Ten title. We’ve really got to focus up right now and take it one game at a time.
“Our full focus is on Indiana, a really good team. And we’re going to their place, which is a tough place to play. We’ve got to bring our full energy and full focus every day.”
Iowa finished tied atop the Big Ten in 2008, but the Hawkeyes lost the tiebreaker after getting swept by top seed Ohio State in the regular season. Before that, Iowa’s last outright league title came in 1998.
Three more wins, and the Hawkeyes would match that milestone. Iowa is currently tied with Maryland at the top, but Sunday’s win gives the Hawkeyes the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Iowa is looking good postseason-wise as well, checking in as a No. 3 seed in Charlie Crème’s latest bracketology. The Hawkeyes also cracked the top 10 in both polls for the first time since December 1996.
Exciting times, yes, but everyone understands the disappointment that could enter if Iowa doesn’t finish the job.
“We’ve got ourselves in a really great spot,” junior Kathleen Doyle said, “and we’re just going to do what we can to win that next game in front of us.
“Nobody on this team is focused on individual success. Everyone wants to win a Big Ten championship, and that’s what we’re after every single game. It’s hard to win in the Big Ten, so you’ve got to put all your energy and focus into that specific goal of winning that next game in front of you. If anyone was worried about individual success, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
A veteran unit adds validity to what could sound like lip service.
The Hawkeyes have done a sound job this year of regrouping amid success or failure. Five straight wins came after the Jan. 10 loss at Purdue. Another five in a row arrived after a stunning Feb. 1 defeat at Michigan. The success didn’t stop after ranked wins over Minnesota, Rutgers and Michigan State.
“I feel like they’re very driven,” Bluder said. “This is a team that’s very focused and locked in. and maybe that Michigan loss did that for us. It showed us you can’t take any day off. You can’t take any practice off.
“Ever since that game, our team has been very dialed in and ready to go to work.”
Back to work Thursday in Hoosier land. Special things are ahead if Iowa can finish the job.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.