Hawkeyes didn't run from lofty expectations this season. They embraced them.
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Supporters from all over piled into Iowa’s basketball facility, anxious to catch a glimpse of this special product. The noise grew louder and louder that this year could be a memorable one.
No, this wasn’t a scene from March — or even November.
This was in July, a whole four months before the season’s opening tip.
It’s not often women’s basketball teams this elite roll through Iowa City — and the 2019 Hawkeyes knew that. Lofty expectations surfaced earlier than any point during Lisa Bluder’s Iowa tenure as head coach. Shouldering those can become a burden for an unfocused squad.
The Hawkeyes didn’t run from expectations. They embraced them. It’s hard to argue they weren’t met.
“There were high expectations, but it wasn’t pressure,” Bluder said after Monday’s 85-53 season-ending loss to Baylor in the Elite Eight. “We embraced it. We loved it. We wanted to be the team that was known as being a good team. So in my mind, it wasn’t pressure. It was more like we just wanted to keep getting better and better and better all the time.”
At places like Connecticut, Baylor, Notre Dame and others — where deep postseason runs and Final Four appearances occur regularly — no one season feels like it has to be “the year.” Iowa, while boasting some impressive credentials, hadn’t been to the Elite Eight in almost three decades. It had only made it past the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend once since 1996.
So when all the pieces fell into place for Iowa to end those droughts and more, it became clear that anything short of an emphatic surge was going to leave an empty feeling.
Surge the Hawkeyes did.
We’ll start with the milestones. Iowa’s 29 wins tied a school record, matched only by the 1987-88 squad. Its Elite Eight trip was just the fourth in program history and the first since 1993.
The Hawkeyes owned Iowa City, going undefeated at home for only the sixth time. Iowa’s enthralling ride to its first Big Ten Tournament title in 17 years more than made up for falling short of a regular-season conference crown.
Even as a layer of sadness hung over the Iowa locker room following Monday’s lopsided loss, appreciation arose from disappointment. Those in black and gold understood what had been accomplished, even as tears came flowing out.
“We definitely surpassed a lot of expectations,” senior Tania Davis said. “It was a great year.
“For me, I knew we were good. But for us to grow the way that we did every single day in practice and to get better and to peak every single day, it never felt like we were remaining the same. It never felt like we were going backwards. It always felt like we were going up. We just continued to progress. Obviously not the ending that we wanted, but I definitely felt like we came out and took care of business this season.”
Buoying this season’s success was a three-deep senior group that will long be remembered. Davis, Hannah Stewart and Megan Gustafson finish as Iowa’s highest scoring class, combining for 4,619 points over four years.
Davis’ perseverance, Stewart’s patience and Gustafson’s relentless dominance blended together to form a special trio.
“We've all three had different journeys,” Gustafson said. “Tania is one of the toughest warriors I know to be able to battle back from three injuries, with the shoulder and two back-to-back ACLs. ... Hannah, she's going to do great things when she's done.
“And I just tried to do my job here at Iowa and just tried to work hard every single day. God has just blessed me with an amazing ability to play basketball, and I'm just so, so pleased and thankful that the University of Iowa chose me and I chose to play for them.”
Those three departures will dampen expectations heading into next season, but Iowa is confident it can keep this momentum pumping. A veteran backcourt — seniors Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer, as well as redshirt junior Alexis Sevillian — will carry the load until a fledgling frontcourt catches up.
How quickly Monika Czinano, Logan Cook, Amanda Ollinger and newcomer McKenna Warnock can adjust to larger roles will dictate if Iowa can make it three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
For now, those questions can wait. It isn’t time to turn the page on this unforgettable run just yet.
“I’m sad it’s over,” Gustafson said, “but I’m happy that it happened.”
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.