With Big Ten title dreams slipping away, No. 10 Hawkeyes have bigger priorities in play

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In all likelihood, Thursday night’s sting still lingers to some degree. Herein lies Iowa’s toughest test to date.

With March swiftly approaching, the Hawkeyes have no time to dwell on missed opportunities. Yes, Thursday’s come-from-ahead loss at Indiana likely cost No. 10 Iowa a Big Ten regular-season title. The race isn’t done yet. But the Hawkeyes’ chances are on life support — and out of their control. In a big spot, Iowa flopped.

The Hawkeyes must let that aspiration go. There are bigger targets still in play.

For all that’s gone right in this Iowa women’s basketball campaign, enough duds have been scattered throughout the season to wonder if another landmine will explode at just the wrong time. Thursday wasn’t that instance. Four weeks from now is.

In a tournament sport like college basketball, the highs and lows of March Madness take precedence over just about anything else. Think blowing a Big Ten title hurts? Blowing a Sweet Sixteen appearance would hurt much more.

Which is why the Hawkeyes (21-6, 12-4 Big Ten Conference) must regroup quickly with an eye on next month. That starts Monday at Nebraska (13-14, 8-8) in what is Iowa’s final road trip of the year. To their credit, the Hawkeyes have done a decent job of not letting one head-scratching performance turn into two. Now more than ever, Iowa needs that to continue.

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder looks on while players are introduced during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

“Let's hope we'll be able to come, refocus and come back to practice,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said after Thursday's game. “The pressure is off now. Now we have to go out and play our best basketball.”

It appeared Iowa was doing that, even for extended stretches Thursday. To experience the pain of blowing a 16-point second-half lead, the Hawkeyes first had to play well enough to be up 16. They did that in typical fashion, spilling over the Maryland-win momentum for a solid 2 ½ quarters in Bloomington.

But things unraveled quickly in the fourth. For a team like Indiana fighting to stay on the bubble’s right side, desperation proved to be a potent catalyst.

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The loss didn’t seem to cost Iowa anything in the NCAA Tournament department. ESPN’s Charlie Crème had the Hawkeyes as a No. 3 seed both before and after the Indiana mishap. Given its home dominance, it’s paramount Iowa hosts first- and second-round games.

Perhaps the Hawkeyes have already done enough to avoid dropping below a No. 4 seed, even if more futility follows. But that’s not something Iowa wants to test.

“February is winding down. We’ve got some really big games coming up to determine what’s going to happen to us in the postseason,” senior Megan Gustafson said this week. “So we’ve just got to bring that energy and that focus every single day — never take any team lightly, especially this time of year.”

Nebraska gave Iowa its toughest Big Ten home test, pushing the Hawkeyes until the final minute before suffering a 77-71 defeat back on Jan 3. It’s been a seesawing season for the Huskers, but they have won three of their last four, including recent home wins over Purdue and Michigan State.

If Iowa can take care of business Monday and next Sunday, against Northwestern, there’s a fleeting chance it gets the necessary help for a Big Ten title. Maryland, now up one game on the Hawkeyes, would need to lose either Monday, at Purdue, or Saturday, against Illinois. It's possible — but not probable.

That should be on the backburner now. If Iowa can refocus, there’s still plenty of basketball left to make this a special season.

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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