IOWA CITY, Ia. — Lisa Bluder knows a strenuous slate only works if you can snag a few wins. Otherwise, it benefits little.
After the season’s first slip-up in Sunday’s 66-64 loss to South Dakota State — a likely NCAA Tournament squad that received 35 votes in the latest USA TODAY Coaches poll — Bluder and the Iowa women’s basketball team don’t have to wait long before another quality foe comes calling.
The Hawkeyes (4-1) will head to the Cancun Challenge for Thanksgiving, opening up with No. 10 UCLA (3-1) at 8 p.m. Thursday. Iowa will then face James Madison (2-2) at the same time Friday.
“We have some great opponents coming up, and we can't dwell on this one,” Bluder said after the SDSU loss. “We have got to move forward. We're playing UCLA — No. 1 Notre Dame coming up here (on Nov. 30) — so definitely, we have a tough schedule.”
With three starters back from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, UCLA entered this season as the Pac-12 favorite for the first time since 1999. The Bruins flow through the veteran presence of junior guard Jordin Canada, who garnered preseason first-team all-conference honors and co-leads UCLA with 17 points per game so far. Her scoring co-pilot is 6-foot-4 forward Monique Billings, who’s averaging a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) while shooting 50 percent (25-for-50) from the field.
Along with sound wins over Pacific (82-55), Southern (95-47) and Cal Poly (80-64), the Bruins’ only stumble came in a quality 84-70 road loss to then-No. 2 Baylor, a game UCLA trailed by just two entering the fourth quarter.
With a fledgling Iowa group still finding its footing in the early going, Thursday's task will be the toughest yet. A sluggish start like Sunday’s won’t work. The Hawkeyes will need a complete effort to secure a resume-highlighting nonconference win.
And make some headway on their beefed-up slate.
“The problem is,” Bluder said, “it's not one thing just to play a tough schedule. You do have to win some.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting and Iowa athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.