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Iowa women's basketball: March implications pivotal as Hawkeyes look to stay off NCAA bubble

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It's about this time of year, if not earlier, that each college basketball move is contextualized with March implications. Although much of the accustomed glitz and glamor will be removed with both NCAA Tournaments relegated to one location, excitement will always exist surrounding postseason play.

In Iowa's case, the Hawkeyes (10-6, 6-6 Big Ten Conference) aren't firmly on the bubble just yet, but they could be, with more results like what the last few weeks have delivered. Even with all of Iowa's defeats being Quadrant 1 losses, five of those six stumbles have come in the Hawkeyes' previous seven games. With several missed opportunities for top-25 upsets, the biggest plus on Iowa's' up-to-date resume is that there are no glaring slip-ups. 

Add in even a questionable loss, though, and the lack of signature wins becomes even more magnified. That's where Thursday's game at Nebraska (9-7, 7-6) enters the chat.

Although the BTN-televised 7 p.m. affair is almost a Quadrant 1 chance — the NET cutoff for road games is at No. 75; the Cornhuskers enter at 79 — a loss here would feel a bit different than Iowa's recent bevy of near-stunners. Nebraska isn't in the NCAA Tournament conversation, failing to show up in ESPN's latest bracketology. Sticking a Husker loss on the Hawkeyes' ledger would almost certainly require Iowa to go above and beyond in its final stretch. 

"It's time for us to finally put it all together," Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday, "and hopefully, we will because I know we're knocking on the door. I really believe that with all my heart that we're knocking on the door, and it's going to open one of these days."        

McKenna Warnock and the Hawkeyes aren't on the bubble yet after losing five of seven, but adding any questionable losses to their lack of quality wins could put Iowa in trouble.

If Thursday is to go smoother, Iowa must avoid falling victim to Nebraska's home prowess that's consistently been there this year despite the overall pedestrian record. The Huskers won six straight at Pinnacle Bank Arena to open the season and are 7-1 there overall, including victories over Northwestern and Ohio State. There should be few teams more impressed with those upsets than Iowa, which lost four games to the Wildcats and Buckeyes in less than a month. 

Although Nebraska has dabbled with underclassmen in its starting lineup, the Huskers' veteran nucleus has buoyed much of their success this season. Junior point guard Sam Haiby (17.4 ppg) and senior center Kate Cain give Nebraska a reliable inside-out threat that's done damage inside a treacherous Big Ten. 

"It's going to take everyone contributing to stop every person on their team," junior center Monika Czinano said. "We might have a duck-down from a guard that helps stop (Cain). I might have to help on a drive to help out the guards. That's kind of the culture mentality that we have."   

That cohesiveness has been tested as this team encounters adversity for the first time this season. Perhaps it's best that only one current Hawkeye (Alexis Sevillian) has played significant NCAA Tournament minutes, as March distractions become louder. A handful of bench players from the 2019 Elite Eight team have grown into pivotal pieces, but this is largely everyone's first experience with navigating the looming postseason road. 

"There's so much background noise that happens right about now," said Czinano, one of the few Iowa players who made cameo appearances during the 2019 NCAA Tournament. “If you let it, it can take away from really focusing on finishing out strong in the Big Ten. It's really important to focus on that."

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.