By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa women’s basketball team will face its second top 10 opponent in less than a week when No. 1 Notre Dame visits Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
The Hawkeyes (5-2 overall) opened the Cancun Challenge with a 78-65 loss to No. 10 UCLA on Nov. 24.
“This is one of those games you don’t have to say a lot to get them excited,” UI head coach Lisa Bluder said Monday at a news conference in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Keeping them calmer might be a better thing for the Notre Dame game; remind them we’re playing at home and that we have played against good opponents. We’re prepared for this — getting them to relax will be a key.”
Notre Dame is off to a 6-0 start and has outscored opponents by nearly 30 points a game. Bluder said she wasn’t excited when she found out in August that the Hawkeyes would face Notre Dame. But she also sees this matchup as an opportunity for her young team that starts two freshmen and two sophomores.
“We know they are a very good basketball team and they have been to Carver before, but certainly testing yourself against the best is going to help our RPI (Ratings Percentage Index),” Bluder said. “We have absolutely no pressure. We have to use this game as an opportunity for an upset and to get better by going against the best.”
The Irish have won the first two meetings in the series, including 74-57 in the NCAA Tournament in 2013. The only previous regular-season meeting came in 1996 with Notre Dame winning, 61-50, in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“(Notre Dame’s) consistency of success over decades…(head coach) Muffet (McGraw) has done an unbelievable job,” Bluder said. “If you had a Mount Rushmore, Notre Dame is up there right now.”
Six Irish players average at least 8.5 points per game, led by sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale at 17.7 points per game.
“They have a great point guard, great center, they have depth, they have people coming off the bench that shoot the ball well,” Bluder said. “Arike is putting up astonishing numbers, so I don’t see a whole lot of weaknesses.”
The Hawkeyes are led by senior Ally Disterhoft, who averages 18.1 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. Sophomore center Megan Gustafson averages 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds a game and was named to Cancun Challenge all-tournament team. Gustafson averaged 19 points and 7.5 rebounds in games against UCLA and James Madison, while shooting 72 percent from the field (18-of-25).
“Megan is coming off a great week,” Bluder said. “Being named to the all-tournament team in Cancun was a great honor for her. This will be her toughest test thus far this year.”
Gustafson will go head-to-head against Notre Dame center Brianna Turner, who averages 13.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge tips off a four-game homestand for the Hawkeyes that includes intrastate rivalry games against Northern Iowa (Dec. 4) and Iowa State (Dec. 7). Iowa hosts Robert Morris on Dec. 9.
“Being at home and not traveling is a good thing for us leading up to finals,” Bluder said. “This time of year the players get a little stressed about academics and deservedly so. We have players on our team that really want to do well academically and we’re thankful for that.”
Tip-off for the Notre Dame-Iowa game is set for 8 p.m. (CT) and will be televised by BTN. It is the third straight time the Hawkeyes will begin at 8 p.m. (CT).
Bluder doesn’t get hung up on start times, but she is a stickler about playing hard on every possession.
“Play to their best every possession in every game and not worry about the scoreboard,” she said. “Look up and see what happens at the end.”