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March Madness: Hawkeyes believe 'they belong in the Sweet 16' ahead of Kentucky showdown


For all the success Lisa Bluder has racked up leading Iowa women's basketball, an opportunity like this one shouldn't be downplayed in any way.  

With a win over No. 4 seed Kentucky in Tuesday's second-round NCAA Tournament game, the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes will be off to the Sweet 16 for just the third time in Bluder's 21-season Iowa tenure. Although all the appearances have come since 2015, these Hawkeyes understand how difficult it can be to reach this coveted round. 

"It would be wonderful," Bluder said. "Everybody was saying at the beginning of the year, 'If we could just make the NCAA Tournament.' Then you get here and it's like, 'Ah, you just want to win that first game.'  And now you're like, 'The Sweet 16 sounds so good.'

"You just keep wanting more. I think that's human nature, but that's also the competitiveness. I have a team right now that believes they belong in the Sweet 16." 

Bluder's squads have been in this spot before, only to have women's basketball giants lurking on the other side. Tuesday's 2:30 p.m. game on ESPNU marks the eighth time a Bluder-led Iowa team has reached the second round, with the first five appearances mostly resulting in ugly drubbings. Those losses came against a No. 5 seed (2001), three No. 1 seeds (2002, 2010, 2013) and a No. 3 seed (2014). Iowa's average margin of defeat in those outings was 24.6 points. 

While still daunting, the current challenge should be more realistic.

Iowa (19-9) faced teams of Kentucky's caliber all throughout the season, piling up 10 games against ranked teams inside a rugged Big Ten. The Hawkeyes took their lumps — but shouldn't be intimidated by a Wildcats team that went wire-to-wire in both polls and spent multiple weeks in the top-10.

NCAA Tournament Recap: March Madness: Hawkeyes open NCAA Tournament with 87-72 win over Central Michigan

"The better defensive team (Tuesday) should win," guard Kate Martin said. "Our mission is just to play really good defense, move really hard and we'll do what we want on offense."               

Multiple Hawkeyes compared Kentucky to Rutgers in the way the Wildcats pressure defensively and keep the intensity pumping. If that model holds true, Iowa should feel decent about its chances considering it beat Rutgers twice this season. The last of those was a dominant performance less than two weeks ago. 

Rutgers, though, didn't have Rhyne Howard — Kentucky's all-around star and two time SEC player of the year. A first-round stat line of 14 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and a block accentuates her versatile prowess.

"At 6-foot-2, she can play so many different positions," Bluder said. "You see her at the point guard, the off guard, the small forward, the power forward. She has such versatility. You're talking about the player of the year in the SEC, that's amazing. She's athletic. She can rebound. She averages over two-and-a-half offensive rebounds per game. She can score at all three different areas, especially coming off a screen into a beautiful jump shot. 

"She's difficult to defend, and it's not going to take one person. It's going to take a team effort to defend her."                 

A team effort is how Iowa got here. Four double-figure scorers were too much for Central Michigan to handle, as the Hawkeyes navigated through the opening round without much drama. The nationally renowned show of Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano had plenty of help on college basketball's grandest stage.

The season again goes on the line Tuesday afternoon. Iowa has a chance to cement this year as something special.

"We have a great opportunity more than anything," Clark said. "We have nothing to lose going into this game. We're obviously young, but that doesn't mean anything to us. We play together. If we just play our game, I think we'll be perfectly fine."  

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.