Megan Gustafson and the Hawkeyes open the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s a relaxed vibe surrounding the Hawkeyes as they trek to Indianapolis, looking to put one final stamp on things before the Big Dance. Unlike the previous two women's basketball seasons, though, Iowa’s NCAA Tournament work is already complete heading into March.
This weekend is just bonus.
“We’re going into the (conference tournament) without having the pressure of having to win, and that’s a nice feeling,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday. “We want to win the tournament, but at the same time, we are in the Big Dance. We know that, so I think that will make us play a little bit more at ease and enjoy the experience a little bit more.”
Fifth-seeded Iowa (23-6) will begin its Big Ten Conference Tournament journey on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against No. 12 seed Northwestern (12-19), which knocked off No. 13 seed Wisconsin on Wednesday to open the five-day event.
A win there would propel the Hawkeyes into the quarterfinals, where they’d get a third matchup with fourth-seeded Minnesota.
A riveting regular-season finish has relieved all tension. After grinding through the treacherous early portion of its Big Ten slate, Iowa surged when the schedule eased up, ripping off seven in a row against a slew of conference bottom feeders.
That final push cemented the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Tournament case. ESPN.com bracketologist Charlie Crème in his latest projection pegged Iowa as a No. 6 seed.
Start there when looking for Iowa’s conference tournament motivations. The bubble stress may not be in play as it was the previous two seasons, but the Hawkeyes certainly don’t want to lay an egg and drop down to a No. 7 or No. 8 seed.
That would mean facing a team from the sport’s upper echelon, thus decreasing Iowa’s chances of making an NCAA Tournament run.
“We know every win counts when it comes to seeding, so we’re going to be really focused going into the (conference) tournament,” sophomore Makenzie Meyer said. “And hopefully, we’ll get a good result.
“We truly feel like we can beat anybody in the Big Ten, so we’re really confident. Even going into games where we would be the lower seed, we know we have a good shot to make a run.”
Iowa opens Thursday in the conference tournament.
Iowa’s road win over Northwestern on Feb. 11 was part of the Hawkeyes’ recent surge. Iowa put three in double figures that day — Megan Gustafson (25 points), Kathleen Doyle (15 points) and Meyer (12 points) — helping Bluder’s squad construct a 14-point halftime lead en route to a 70-61 win.
The Wildcats closed within nine a couple times in the fourth quarter, but the Hawkeyes maintained control throughout. Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam, Abi Scheid and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah all average double figures.
Iowa, though, will enter as sizable favorites and should feel confident in its execution.
The Hawkeyes have pulled out wins in a variety of scenarios over the last month — crushing teams they should (Wisconsin), pulling out close road wins (Michigan State, Rutgers) dominating at home (Indiana) and knocking off NCAA Tournament-caliber foes (Minnesota).
“February was a great month for us,” said Gustafson, speaking for the first time since winning the media’s Big Ten player of the year. “We’ve done some really great things — we’ve been able to have some awesome finishes in February. I think it gives us a lot of momentum coming into the Big Ten Tournament.
“I think that’s really important to have momentum. Anyone, I think for this year, can beat anyone on a given day, and so we’re really excited to keep it going here. I think the Big Ten Tournament is a great platform to be able to do some awesome things.”
Iowa’s only blemish heading in was the health of guard Alexis Sevillian, who missed the Indiana game with the flu. But Bluder said the redshirt freshman guard went through about a third of practice on Monday and expects her to be full-go come Thursday.
When a minor sickness stands as the lone concern, you know you’re in a good spot. With a pressure-free approach, Iowa has the horses to slice the nets in Indy.
"We had our downfall in January and we came back even stronger and won a bunch of games in a row, so hopefully, we can just keep that confidence rolling," Doyle said. “Every team has downfalls throughout the season, but we stayed strong.
“I’m confident that we’ll just continue on and just keep it rolling throughout this postseason.”
Big Ten Conference
- Purdue vs. Rutgers, 11 a.m.
- Iowa vs. Northwestern, 1:25 p.m.
- Indiana vs. Michigan State, 5:30 p.m.
- Michigan vs. Penn State-Illinois winner, 7:55 p.m.
- Ohio State vs. Purdue-Rutgers winner, 11 a.m.
- Minnesota vs. Iowa-Northwestern winner, 1:25 p.m.
- Maryland vs. Indiana-Michigan State winner, 5:30 p.m.
- Nebraska vs. Michigan—Penn State-Illinois winner, 7:55 p.m.
Saturday: Semifinals 5 and 7:25 p.m.
Sunday: Championship game, 6 p.m.