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Lisa Bluder is excited to have Megan Gustafson back in Iowa City for her jersey retirement. Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Once Iowa’s Elite Eight season ended with a top-10 ranking and its goodbyes to the program’s most dominant player, it was fair to figure the Hawkeyes could have been done in the spotlight for the time being.

Yet here we are, gearing up for another massive week in Iowa City.

Fresh off two road survivals that nearly ended in thuds, the No. 21 Hawkeyes (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten Conference) are back in their friendly confines with a chance to keep climbing. Ohio State (11-7, 4-3) comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, followed by Michigan State (also 11-7 and 4-3) on Sunday for what should be an electric afternoon. The buzz surrounding Iowa women’s basketball should feel familiar to Megan Gustafson when she returns to see her No. 10 retired.

Two wins could have Iowa alone atop the Big Ten. That hardly seems fathomable, given where the Hawkeyes were in November.

“Our confidence really does continue to grow with each game,” senior Makenzie Meyer said. “We would like to have to stop being motivated by being down 15 points — we hopefully can come out the next couple games and sustain a steady lead — but we have so much confidence in each other, even when we are down by double digits. That’s going to be important going forward in the Big Ten season, knowing that we’re confident in every single one of our players.”

Last week’s comeback wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin put multiple players in big spots, and almost all delivered. Whether it was Alexis Sevillian’s go-ahead 3 or Meyer’s clutch shooting in Minneapolis — as well as strong closing efforts by Kathleen Doyle and Monika Czinano at Wisconsin — Iowa showed its mettle in enemy territory. The Hawkeyes have won three straight road games after dropping their Big Ten opener at Nebraska.

Now comes the reward.

The Hawkeyes have taken home dominance to a new level. The stats are gaudy enough — 30 straight Carver-Hawkeye Arena wins, 20 by double figures — but there are intangible feelings in place as well. At this point, no matter what is going right or wrong, you feel Iowa is going to find a way late in front of its supporters.

“There haven’t been many games in Carver where I’ve been like, ‘Oh, no — we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose,’” Czinano said. “It’s always been like, ‘OK, time to turn it on. Time to get this thing rolling’ — even when things aren’t going well here.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the fans and the type of energy Carver brings for all of us. There’s definitely something there when we get into the fourth quarter.”

The Hawkeyes hope to have sizable leads by the time they get there this week, although Ohio State and Michigan State will have something to say. These aren’t the ranked foes Iowa faced at home two weeks ago, but the Buckeyes and Spartans have each shown signs of life this season.

Having already faced Connecticut, Stanford and Louisville in the nonconference, Ohio State can hang against elite competition even with a bumpy Big Ten start. Michigan State has struggled similarly in conference, but it also has had flashes of brilliance this year. The Spartans were 21st in the preseason and spent seven weeks ranked before dropping out. They’d like nothing more than to spoil Iowa’s festivity-filled Sunday.

Handling the dog days of conference play is essential for any time eyeing lofty March goals. The Hawkeyes are in this position much sooner than expected.

Another week of excitement adds flair to the grind.

“You have a confident basketball team right now,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said, “a team that is playing better together just because of their experiences together. You can tell they have joy in the way they play. They’re smiling and having fun.”           

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.           

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