March 24, 2015
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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — There aren’t many people who have an extra skip in their step or smile on their face when reporting for work Monday morning.
University of Iowa head women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder was one of those people March 23, and for good reason: there are only 15 other Division I women’s basketball coaches still alive in the NCAA Tournament. And for the first time since 1996, one of those coaches is from Iowa.
“There are a lot of people out there that aren’t working any more this time of year. They don’t get to go out to practice and we do,” Bluder said Tuesday at a news conference in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “It was fun getting up and going to work Monday morning.”
The 15th-ranked Hawkeyes (26-7) take on No. 6 Baylor (32-3) in a Sweet 16 matchup Friday at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Tipoff is 6:30 p.m. (CT) and the game will be broadcast by ESPN2.
Iowa has been led all season by its senior class and Bluder hopes experience is a factor against Baylor. Three of the top four scorers for the Hawkeyes are seniors; the top four scorers for Baylor are sophomores and the fifth-leading scorer is a freshman.
“Baylor has been there a lot, but they are a younger team,” Bluder said. “Our players have had a lot of NCAA experience. Our seniors have been around a lot longer.”
The teams share a common opponent in Iowa State. Iowa defeated the Cyclones, 76-67, on Dec. 11 in Iowa City; Baylor defeated Iowa State, 79-47, on Jan. 13 in Waco, Texas, but lost, 76-71, on Feb. 28 in Ames, Iowa.
“We’re going into the game with confidence we can come out of there with a win,” said UI freshman guard Whitney Jennings. “At the start of practice (Tuesday), Sam (Logic) said this is new territory for us all, being here and still practicing. So we’re taking it one step at a time together and going from there.”
It is also new territory for Iowa’s coaching staff. In 31 seasons, Bluder has won 660 games, but this is her first time in a Sweet 16. Bluder pointed out that of the four coaches in the Oklahoma City Regional — Kim Mulkey of Baylor, Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame, and Tara VanDerveer of Stanford — she is the only one who has not coached in a Final Four. That doesn’t mean Bluder or the Hawkeyes are content.
“There are a lot of people out there that aren’t working any more this time of year. They don’t get to go out to practice and we do. It was fun getting up and going to work Monday morning.”
UI basketball coach
“It’s not over. There is no reason why it has to be over this weekend, either,” Bluder said. “We want to keep this going as long as we can. Let’s keep it moving and not be satisfied.”
Even though reaching the Sweet 16 was a season-long goal for the Hawkeyes, it wasn’t difficult to reset team expectations. It was done shortly after a well-deserved net-cutting celebration in Carver-Hawkeye Arena after an 88-70 win over Miami (Florida) on Sunday.
“Everyone wants to be here that much more,” said UI senior guard Melissa Dixon. “It’s that much more exciting that you’re preparing for a Sweet 16 game. It’s not just any practice, we’re going to play in the Sweet 16, and everyone has a ton of energy because of that.”
Senior center Bethany Doolittle led the Hawkeyes against Miami with 22 points and 11 rebounds. She says sticking to unselfish Iowa women’s basketball is a key to making a run to the Final Four in Tampa Bay.
“All year long we have been adjusting our goals,” Doolittle said. “We had preseason goals and we changed that after pre-conference play to conference goals. Now we have our sights on the Elite Eight. Our goal is to keep going as far as we can and the goal at hand is to beat Baylor.”
Iowa averages 79.9 points per game and the five starters score between 15.2 and 9.1 points per game. Bluder feels that her team’s explosive offense could give the Bears fits. Baylor allows 58.3 points per game and only one of its last six opponents have reached 70 points.
“Every team you play is a good defensive team this time of year,” Bluder said. “You may be able to stay with us and stop our offense for 10 minutes and maybe even 20 minutes, but it’s hard to stop our offense for 40 minutes. We’re going to keep coming at you and we have so many weapons.”
Bluder has coached teams that have won more games and finished at the top of the conference standings. But there is something special about the 2014-15 group. She calls it a “no maintenance team.”
“It’s hard to put in words how special they have been to coach,” Bluder said. “It’s not just because we’ve won games, but because of their positive attitude and coachability. We haven’t had to come up with gimmicks to motivate this team.”