Underdog role fueling Hawkeyes as Iowa looks to make 'a big statement' against Baylor

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

GREENSBORO, N.C. — As the underdog narrative spread throughout Iowa’s locker room Sunday afternoon, a prevailing theme emerged from those who are tasked with toppling a giant.

It’s a role the Hawkeyes haven’t experienced much during this magical ride — but one they’re fully embracing with confidence ahead of Monday’s Elite Eight showdown against No. 1 overall seed Baylor inside Greensboro Coliseum.

“Hearing the word 'underdog' just fuels us all,” senior Tania Davis said. “Obviously being the underdog you like to prove people wrong. I feel like we wear that with pride.

“We’ll just try to play Iowa basketball to the best of our ability.”

That Hawkeye brand has already delivered countless memories in what’s been a renaissance season — but upsetting this Texas powerhouse would lift Iowa into an upper echelon it has, arguably, never reached.

Since the women’s NCAA Tournament began in 1982, the Hawkeyes are 6-24 when facing a No. 1 seed or a team that became a No. 1 seed later that season. That stretch includes 16 straight such losses. Iowa’s only March Madness win over a No. 1 seed came against Tennessee in 1993 — the program’s lone Final Four season.

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder, left, hugs Megan Gustafson, right, during the second half of a regional women's college basketball game against North Carolina State in the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Hawkeyes’ most recent swing at knocking off the elite came in November, when Iowa fell hard at Notre Dame by 34 points. The Fighting Irish were ranked No. 1 at the time and will play for their seventh Final Four berth in nine years Monday night.

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It's a different team and different personnel, obviously, than the Baylor challenge. But the Notre Dame drubbing — albeit without then-injured Kathleen Doyle — showcased a flawless product Iowa is trying to match.

It hopes Monday’s attempt goes much better.

“I think we can make a big statement,” all-American senior Megan Gustafson said. “The last time we played a team when we were the underdog, we didn’t play the best. … We’re a different team than we were then. I think some people maybe don’t think that’s true and think we’re the same team.

“We’ve been jelling all year long since then, and that was kind of a turning point to be honest — just being like, ‘OK, we need to focus up and keep having that intensity no matter what.’ That’s been really helpful as we’ve kept that going since that game. We’re turning heads, and we’re going to keep doing that (Monday).”

To do so, Gustafson will have to handle her toughest matchup to date. On the other side is 6-foot-7 senior Kalani Brown, a unanimous all-American in her own right. She too is on the last leg of a decorated career, hoping to end it with championship glory. Baylor’s 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox against Hannah Stewart is a solid undercard.

During Sunday’s press conferences, both Brown and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey were understandably asked about the hype-filled matchup down low. There was plenty of respect for Gustafson — but also multiple tongue-and-cheek answers regarding how this showdown might unfold.

Mulkey said she hopes Brown doesn’t “have nightmares all night” about facing Gustafson. Baylor’s standout center sarcastically answered a question about Monday’s challenges by highlighting her “lack of mobility.”

Regardless, two of the sport’s most forceful players will be on full display in primetime. That’s a hard-to-beat storyline in such a pivotal game.

“In order to get (to the Final Four), we have to go through one of the best players in the country,” Gustafson said. “I have no problem trying to do that.”

Neither do the Hawkeyes as a whole. The spread, which currently has Baylor as a 13.5-point favorite, and the national women’s basketball scene aren’t pegging this one as a trendy upset. Iowa knows that.

Does it care? Not so much.

“People can think whatever they want to think about us,” Doyle said. “That’s our mindset. We know what we believe, and if we go out there and show it, that’s all that really matters.

“You start off the tournament, you’re thinking Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Now that we’re in this Elite Eight, we should probably go to the Final Four too. We just want more.”

An upset Monday would send the women’s college basketball world spinning. Baylor hasn’t lost in 15 weeks and is shooting for its fourth Final Four in 14 years. Iowa is playing in the Elite Eight for the first time in nearly three decades.

The difference in pedigree matters little to the Hawkeyes.

“A lot of people have us as the underdogs, but we’re still so confident in each other,” junior Makenzie Meyer said. “We really believe we’re going to pull this off.”

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.