Brown: It's been a sweet (16) season for Bluder's bunch
IOWA CITY – The Monday Blues? Not in Lisa Bluder's world.
"It was fun getting up and going to work on Monday," said Iowa's energized women's basketball coach.
Not since 1996 had a Hawkeye season lived past the first week of the NCAA Tournament. Bluder's bunch snapped that streak by beating Miami of Florida Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a coveted berth in the Sweet 16.
That made Monday a scramble. There was tape to watch. A scouting report and practice plan to prepare. And getting the team refocused for Friday's game with Baylor in the semifinals of the Oklahoma City Regional.
"Believe me, we've reset our goals very quickly," Bluder said. "Now our goal is to make the Elite Eight."
Back in early January, Bluder told me she thought the Sweet 16 was an attainable goal for her team. She knew that by earning a top-four seed, Iowa would host two NCAA games against lesser seeds. The Hawkeyes got a No. 3 seed because of strong play in the nonconference portion of their schedule — including victories over fellow Sweet 16 teams Gonzaga and Dayton — and a runner-up finish in the Big Ten.
"Any time you set a challenging goal and you reach it, it's special," Bluder said.
When Sunday's 26th victory of the season was in the books, Bluder gathered her team on the floor. A stepladder was found. And the Hawkeyes had a traditional basketball celebration. They cut down the nets.
"We felt like there were reasons to celebrate," Bluder said.
A Sweet 16, the sixth in program history. An 18-0 record at home. And a storybook Carver-Hawkeye farewell for seniors Samantha Logic, Melissa Dixon, Bethany Doolittle and Kathryn Reynolds.
"You couldn't ask for a better ending, and a better game, in Carver," Dixon said. "It was pretty incredible."
Dixon has a basketball shrine in the bedroom of her apartment. There's the ball she received after scoring her 1,000th career point at Iowa. She also has four bobbleheads — one of herself and the other three seniors. Plenty of basketball photos. And new to the collection: a piece of the net.
"To be able to play in the Sweet 16 is something I'm never going to forget," Dixon said.
This a team deep in camaraderie and free of ego.
"Everyone is so different off the court," Doolittle said. "So many different personalities. But we seem to come together, our chemistry is really great and we choose to hang out with each other outside the basketball world, which is not always something people do."
Put it all together, and Bluder's 15th season at Iowa is one she'll always cherish. Her first Sweet 16 as a coach and eighth straight NCAA bid overall. With a team that made coming to work a joy each and every day.
"This has been a special group," said Iowa's all-time winningest coach. "There are low-maintenance teams. This has been a no-maintenance team."
The seniors leave a significant void that will have to be replaced through recruiting. Iowa's incoming class is ranked in the top 20 nationally. Four players from the Class of 2016 also have committed, led by forward Amanda Ollinger from Cedar Rapids Jefferson.
The Hawkeyes' up-tempo style of play under Bluder always has been a selling point. And Bluder believes the exposure of the Big Ten Network provides an assist because it turns recruiting pitches into real life. Now we'll see if a Sweet 16 — and maybe more — leads to a recruiting bounce.
"We don't know yet, because we haven't experienced it in a long time," Bluder said. "But I have to imagine it's going to be good for us."
WHO: No. 3 seed Iowa (26-7) vs. No. 2 seed Baylor (32-3).
WHAT: NCAA Tournament regional semifinal, better known as the Sweet 16.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City.
TV, RADIO: ESPN2, WHO-AM (1040).
LOOKING AHEAD: The winner advances to the Elite Eight to meet No. 1 seed Notre Dame or No. 4 seed Stanford on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.