'A lot of distractions' — and a chance for a rebound await No. 6 Iowa women's basketball Sunday

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — For all the external elements surrounding Sunday’s highly anticipated women’s basketball showdown, there’s really only one objective that matters for Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes.

“College Gameday” in town offers a unique opportunity. Senior day for Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock will provide a special moment. NCAA tournament positioning is certainly important. But more than anything, No. 6 Iowa needs a performance to get back on track after delivering its worst showing of the season earlier this week.

It won’t be an easy task, facing a second-ranked Indiana squad that has locked up the outright Big Ten regular-season title. However, the Hawkeyes should be plenty motivated to show Tuesday’s blowout loss at No. 8 Maryland was just an anomaly and not the start of something more problematic.

The Hawkeyes (22-6, 14-3 Big Ten Conference) and Hoosiers (26-1, 16-1) tip at 1 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, with “College GameDay” airing on the same network from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

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“Everything (surrounding Sunday’s game) is super exciting,” Warnock said, “but we know we’re ready to come out and play this game — and just do it like we know how to do it.”  

Tuesday’s 96-68 loss at Maryland — which featured 24 Iowa turnovers and a stunning 8-point second quarter — saw the Hawkeyes out of sorts on both ends, in ways Bluder’s squad hasn’t shown this season.

For now, it can be chalked up as another tough trip to the XFINITY Center. Iowa has never won there since Maryland joined the Big Ten. But another dud performance Sunday with a highly ranked foe on the other side — plus a sold-out crowd pumping in support — isn’t a route Iowa wants to explore so close to March.

“All you can do is learn from it and move on,” said Iowa guard Caitlin Clark. “Our scenario right now — maybe we’re not playing for a Big Ten championship — but there’s still another one we can get in the (conference) tournament. But we still have a sold-out arena. We get to play the No. 2 team in the country on our home court. The opportunity for us is still there.

“As long as you learn and move on and get better from (the Maryland loss), that’s all you can ask.”     

Conquering the Hoosiers will require a stronger effort than what was delivered on Feb. 9, when the Hawkeyes suffered an 87-78 loss at Assembly Hall that saw Czinano score just 6 points on six shots.

The scouting report should still be fresh, as are the memories from that frustrating night. Mackenzie Holmes owned the interior to the tune of 24 points on 10-for-17 shooting. Expect Czinano to deliver a better follow-up in one of her final games inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“They had a super hostile environment, and sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena is kind of going to be the same thing for them,” Czinano said. “We didn’t play our best basketball quite honestly, and we lost by (9 points). So it’s going to be a good basketball game. It’s going to be close.”

Beyond the on-court analysis, there are a few factors in this matchup worth acknowledging. Iowa needs a win to lock up the No. 2 seed in next weekend’s Big Ten Tournament — but would fall to the No. 3 seed behind Maryland with a loss. While those two are lined up to meet in next Saturday’s semifinal regardless of seeding, any optics advantage Iowa can gain over its fellow Big Ten foes could be important for Selection Sunday.

Where Iowa currently sits in that regard offers room for improvement, even with just one regular-season game and the conference tournament left before NCAA tournament seeds are cemented.

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The Hawkeyes were slotted No. 9 overall in this week’s top-16 committee reveal — and were reflected similarly as a No. 3 seed in Charlie Crème’s latest bracketology. A win Sunday coupled with productivity in the Big Ten Tournament could elevate Iowa to a No. 2 seed, which might mean a less daunting route to the Final Four should the Hawkeyes make that matter down the road.

Iowa’s best route to doing that in the immediate is a strong showing Sunday against Indiana. Consider that priority number one amid the women’s basketball hoopla.   

“There are going to be a lot of distractions that day,” Bluder said. “But you have to manage them this time of year.”

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.