Iowa didn't play its best vs. Georgia — and that's a good thing as Hawkeyes ready for Sweet 16

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — It could’ve easily become this glamorous Carver-Hawkeye Arena scene, complete with a grand senior sendoff as a packed house soaked up every element of another blowout victory.

Lisa Bluder would’ve called a couple late timeouts, designed to let departing players Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock bask in this one final glorious moment inside the gym they’ve called home. Postgame chatter would’ve centered on how the Hawkeyes emphatically erased last year’s second-round pain with a cruise-control victory. Seattle Sweet 16 talks would’ve remained in the background.

Instead, other than Iowa achieving March’s most basic objective (win), none of that happened. And the Hawkeyes could very well be better for it.

For a team that hasn’t run from Final Four aspirations that suddenly look much more plausible, Iowa couldn’t have its second-round win over No. 10 seed Georgia be the crown jewel of this NCAA Tournament run. Having to fight over, around and through the Bulldogs for 40 grueling minutes reinforces there are no nights off in this fabulous event, while also allowing Iowa to roll into Seattle with its intensity still on full throttle.

More:Sign up here for Chad Leistikow's Iowa Hawkeyes text-message group

“That’s how teams are going to play when they play Iowa the rest of the season,” Hawkeyes superstar Caitlin Clark said. “I think more than anything, it should give us confidence rather than something to be frustrated about — turning the ball over like that.

“We just won, and we didn’t play our prettiest basketball. Well, let’s celebrate that and use that going forward.”

Iowa's Caitlin Clark, left, celebrates with Monika Czinano after the Hawkeyes defeated Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

NCAA Tournament and March Madness are all about surviving    

While every team still standing in March tries to channel its best product on the season’s biggest stage, conquering the NCAA Tournament often comes down to surviving when adversity shows up unannounced and won’t depart. There’s simply no way to replicate a moment like that in practice or the regular season. It takes a veteran core loaded with experience to successfully navigate what Iowa endured Sunday.

The Hawkeyes’ 17 turnovers were tied for the fourth most they’ve had in any win this season. The 74-66 victory marked just the second time since early December that Iowa won while scoring less than 75 points. Clark’s 35% shooting mark (6-for-17) was tied for her fifth-lowest percentage in any Hawkeye victory this year.

More:Leistikow: Under Sweet 16 pressure, Caitlin Clark delivers for Iowa women's basketball

Those figures are why Iowa had to sweat out reaching the Sweet 16. They also indicate the Hawkeyes haven’t come close to maxing out their NCAA Tournament potential with ever bigger affairs on deck.

“In March, you want to play the hard-fought battles. You want to play long, aggressive, athletic teams that play until the final buzzer,” Iowa sharpshooter Gabbie Marshall said. “That’s what is exciting about it. That’s what is fun. You want those types of games, and I feel like that gives you good momentum and mental toughness you need going into the next rounds of this tournament. It’s only going to get harder, so that just prepares you more.”

Iowa women's basketball suddenly the favorite to reach Final Four

Answers like Marshall’s arrived before the Hawkeyes knew their Sweet 16 opponent and how the rest of the regional would shake out. Those stay-grounded assessments are even more prevalent now as Iowa will roll into Seattle with another wave of distractions it didn’t necessarily prepare for.

It would be stunning enough on the men’s side if the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds from the same bracket all were eliminated on the first weekend. It’s borderline absurd for it to occur in the women’s tournament — yet here the Hawkeyes are, now the favorites to advance out of Seattle 4 after Stanford, Texas and Duke all stumbled on their home floors.

That means Iowa won’t have to face better than a No. 5 seed to reach its first Final Four in 30 years. The Hawkeyes are roughly six-point favorites Friday against No. 6 seed Colorado and, if they advance, would be around the same Sunday against either No. 5 seed Louisville or No. 8 seed Ole Miss.

More:How to watch, stream and listen to Iowa women's basketball in the Sweet 16 vs. Colorado

Bluder likely didn’t have "reduce Final Four-favorite noise" on her March Madness agenda. But that’s what the Hawkeyes are going to face this week in Seattle. Entering such an environment with a level head and little fanfare from the weekend prior gives Iowa its best chance to handle all the external elements that come this time of year.

Iowa's McKenna Warnock, with ball, is surrounded by Georgia defenders during Sunday's NCAA Tournament game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Georgia made the Hawkeyes work for every pass, dribble and shot in the second-round game, but Iowa survived with a 74-66 victory.

The table is now set for the Hawkeyes to do something truly special. Not having to come down from an NCAA Tournament high before ultimate goals are reached could be a key to obtaining a Final Four ticket.

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Email him at