Iowa Hawkeyes face mountain of challenge in Notre Dame
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Megan Gustafson, Kathleen Doyle and Tania Davis all laughed after the question.
Do you guys remember anything from 1999?
“I was a baby,” chuckled Doyle, a freshman. “No memories.”
The year 1999 carries extra meaning this week. That’s that last time Iowa hosted the No. 1 team in the country; it lost 73-45 to (who else?) UConn. The Hawkeyes will finally host another No. 1 team, Notre Dame, this Wednesday as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“I feel like coming into this game, we have absolutely no pressure,” said Iowa's Lisa Bluder, who was coaching Drake in 1999. “We’re going to use this game for upsets and opportunities to get better and go against the best.
“When you think of Mount Rushmore of the sport, it’s probably Notre Dame’s up there right now.”
In another universe, Notre Dame women’s basketball would be the unquestioned queen of the sport, maybe the sole face on Mount Rushmore. The program’s 21 straight NCAA Tournament berths would be unparalleled, its seven Final Four appearances unrivaled.
In that universe, Donato and Marsiella Auriemma wouldn’t have emigrated from Italy to Pennsylvania, and their little boy, Geno, wouldn’t have landed a coaching gig in Connecticut when he grew up. But in this world, he did.
Auriemma has led UConn to 28 consecutive tourneys and 17 Final Four trips, towering over Notre Dame’s gaudy numbers in comparison.
But the Huskies fell of their pedestal this year … to second place. The Fighting Irish earned the top spot in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll in Week 2 and haven’t let go through their 6-0 start.
None of those six wins have come on the road, though. In fact, Nov. 30 is the latest Notre Dame has played its first true road game of a season since 1993, when it eked out a 58-54 win against Brown on Dec. 5. That season, the Fighting Irish finished 15-12 and missed the postseason for one of three times in coach Muffet McGraw’s 27-year tenure.
Five wins have come at home in 2016, and the sixth came in a “home game” in Houston against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“You can tell our team in practice is just excited by the opportunity to take down No. 1 on our home court,” Doyle said. “Home-court advantage. And I think our energy will help us out with that intensity during the game.”
Notre Dame boasts three legitimate WNBA prospects in its starting five. Sophomore point guard Arike Ogunbowale is netting nearly 18 points per game on 49 percent shooting — 62 from long range. Marina Mabrey is a rangy, 5-foot-11 sophomore guard who’s shooting 95 percent from the free throw line.
And then there’s Brianna Turner — a junior, 6-foot-3 preseason Associated Press All-American forward who owns five gold medals as part of the USA Basketball system.
“She’s the real deal,” said Davis, who played against Turner during an AAU Nike Nationals tournament in high school.
The Hawkeyes returned to practice Monday with heavy legs after spending Thanksgiving at the Cancun Challenge. They beat NCAA Tournament mainstay James Madison 90-75 on Day 2 of the challenge.
On Day 1, they hung with No. 9 UCLA before losing 78-65. They trailed 42-38 at halftime and pulled within 3 in the third, but a poorly timed shooting slump turned the final score more lopsided than it probably should’ve been.
Barring the final frame, Iowa matched the Bruins blow for blow.
“We played really well in those first three quarters,” Doyle said. “So we know that we can carry that energy with us and play with any team in the country.”
Like Notre Dame?
“I think that knowing we can keep up with some of the top teams in the country, that’s just giving us confidence, an extra boost of confidence and energy coming into this game,” Gustafson added.
Some extra confidence is a good thing for Gustafson, who draws her toughest assignment of the year in Turner. To be fair, Gustafson will also be Turner’s biggest challenge of the year yet.
“She’s going to be quick, she’s pretty agile,” Gustafson said of Turner. “And I think it’s going to be a challenge for me just because we’re a little different positions. But I get really good practice every day going against Chase (Coley) and Hannah (Stewart), they’re very agile.
“I think that I’m going to need to contain the drive. I think that I’m going to be able to post up against her because I might be a little bit stronger than her. That might be an advantage.”
Notre Dame’s third win of the year was a 71-67 nail-biter against Green Bay, another preseason bubble team like Iowa. And that was in South Bend, Ind.
So the Fighting Irish aren’t infallible … but they’re pretty close.
Iowa Hawkeyes (5-2) vs. No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-0)
When: 8 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 30
TV: Big Ten Network
Iowa hasn't hosted the No. 1 team since 1993, and Notre Dame hasn't played a true road game yet this year.
Bain covers Hawkeyes basketball for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.