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March Madness: Iowa women land No. 5 seed, will face Central Michigan in NCAA Tournament


IOWA CITY, Ia. — After weeks of settling for near upsets and no embarrassments, Iowa has charged into March playing its best basketball of the season. 

The selection committee agrees. 

The Hawkeyes were awarded a No. 5 seed Monday, officially outshining where many projections had Iowa throughout conference play. The Hawkeyes will begin their NCAA Tournament journey at 11 a.m. Sunday in the River Walk Region against No. 12 seed Central Michigan. San Antonio will mirror Indianapolis as the tournament bubble location on the women's side. Iowa's first game will be held at the Alamodome. 

 "They deserve it," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said shortly after the announcement. "The Big Ten is one of the best women's basketball conferences, and we have the third-highest seed in the NCAA Tournament of Big Ten teams (behind Indiana and Maryland).

"That says a lot about where we're heading."    

There may not be a team that's improved its seeding more over the last three weeks than Iowa (18-9). The Hawkeyes had been hovering in the No. 8 to No. 9 seed range for the bulk of Big Ten action, toppling beatable foes and falling to the league's upper echelon. A 111-93 drubbing at Maryland on Feb. 23 had Lisa Bluder's squad one game over .500 through 15 conference games, having lost seven of its last nine Quadrant 1 opportunities. 

If Iowa was going to make a move, it had to come soon. 

The Hawkeyes' late-season ascension began under dire circumstances. A marathon day fueled by an Iowa positive COVID-19 test ended with an upset over then-No. 12 Michigan. Having finally broken through, Iowa won three of its last four regular-season games and barged into the Big Ten Tournament with authority. 

A run to the title game as the league's No. 6 seed cemented Iowa's final committee presentation. With a late-night quarterfinal win against Rutgers and a mid-afternoon semifinal victory against Michigan State, the Hawkeyes secured two Quadrant 1 wins in less than 24 hours. Iowa only had three over three months in the Big Ten.

On Feb. 15, the Hawkeyes were a No. 9 seed in Charlie Creme's ESPN projection. By Sunday, the most visible women's basketball bracketologist had Iowa as a No. 5. That's massive movement for one month. 

"It's super gratifying to be able to see that, and other people are noticing it too," junior center Monika Czinano said. "It just makes me really exciting that people are recognizing us, and then also knowing that there's so much growth to be made from every single person on the floor."

A peek at the Big Ten's postseason awards reveals how Iowa got here. Other than Maryland and Indiana, the Hawkeyes were the only team with more than one player on the first-team all-conference team. Czinano and freshman guard Caitlin Clark have been Iowa's pillars from the jump.

The former leads the country in shooting percentage (67.9%). The latter leads the country in scoring (26.7 ppg). Together, Czinano and Clark headline an Iowa offense that puts points on the board better than anyone not named Maryland.

There have been solid emergences behind them. Gabbie Marshall used the Big Ten Tournament to further establish her 3-point abilities. Tomi Taiwo has become a reliable stopper off the bench. Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock glue this team together even if their stat lines aren't always glamorous.

Now, Iowa gets to test its postseason mettle. Many of these Hawkeyes were on last season's squad that didn't get an NCAA Tournament opportunity. Before coronavirus stopped the sports world late last spring, that team was primed for a March run.  

Iowa hopes this unit is too. 

"You want your team playing its best basketball at the end of the season," Clark said. "That's what we're starting to do right now. There are areas to improve, but as you saw at the Big Ten Tournament, we've gotten so much better. Our confidence and chemistry as a team has grown more and more every single time we step on the floor."   

 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.