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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — What began as a bitter pill to swallow has turned into a sweet remedy for a University of Iowa women’s basketball team that is savoring every second of its 2016-17 season.
The Hawkeyes (19-13) have embraced a “Who’s Next?” attitude after their somewhat disappointing postseason foray into a second straight WNIT was revealed March 13. But the Hawkeyes rolled up their sleeves and rattled off victories against Missouri State (95-74) and defending WNIT champion South Dakota (78-73) last week. The next challenge comes Thursday against Colorado (17-15) from the Pac-12 Conference.
“It’s late in March and we’re still playing,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday at a news conference in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Everybody wants to be in those shoes.”
The Buffalos are 12-2 against nonconference competition, highlighted by a 10-point victory over No. 15 Kentucky in late November. They were 5-13 in the Pac-12 with wins over nationally ranked California and Oregon. The Ducks are in the NCAA Sweet 16.
“They have significant wins on their schedule,” Bluder said. “Our nonconference schedule was better than theirs, but being in the Pac-12 makes up for that.”
Bluder said the Hawkeyes respect the quality of basketball played in the Pac-12 and Thursday’s third-round WNIT game is not a challenge for conference supremacy. Instead, it is another step toward a WNIT championship.
“Our main motivator is that we want to win and keep going, I don’t care who our opponent is,” Bluder said. “We’re having fun and we’re enjoying this, let’s keep getting better. We’re such a young team that every second we’re on the floor in a competitive mode means so much for the future.”
One of four Hawkeye underclassmen in the starting lineup is sophomore center Megan Gustafson. The team leader in points per game (18.7), rebounds per game (10.0), field goal percentage (64.9), and blocked shots (42) is coming off a career-high 33-point effort against South Dakota, where she made 15-of-16 field goals.
“There are 16 teams left (in the WNIT) and 16 left in the NCAA, so we’re one of 32 teams playing,” Gustafson said. “It’s exciting, especially for getting our younger kids ready to play in the NCAA Tournament next year, hopefully.”
Gustafson hasn’t had time to exult in her 17 double-doubles in points and rebounds this season. Likewise, senior Ally Disterhoft has put any celebration for setting the school’s all-time scoring mark on hold.
“Last year we didn’t attack the (WNIT) with the optimism and excitement we should have,” Disterhoft said. “We have done a great job of that this year. We recognize these teams are high-caliber teams and any of them could be in the NCAA Tournament. It is a big opportunity that we welcome.”
And it is nice to be on Mediacom Court where the Hawkeyes have won 16 times this season, including their last seven games.
Colorado leads the all-time series, 3-2. The teams split a home-and-home series in 2013 and 2014, with Iowa winning 78-63 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Dec. 7, 2014. Thursday’s winner plays either the University of California, Davis or Washington State.
“Every game at this point is emotional because it could be your last,” Disterhoft said. “If you win, you keep moving on, if you lose, you go home. There is that added incentive. It is appreciating all the moments you have left.”