By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — You can go up and down the lineup for the University of Iowa women’s basketball team. From Tomi Taiwo wearing uniform No. 1 to Amanda Ollinger in uniform No. 43, these nationally ranked Hawkeyes enjoy a challenge.
They couldn’t ask for a bigger one than what they will face Thursday inside the Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana. That’s when and where No. 14 Iowa will tangle with defending national champion and top-ranked Notre Dame on its home floor as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Tipoff is 6 p.m. (CT).
“Nothing like a challenge, right?” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday at a news conference inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “This group likes every challenge and every opportunity. It doesn’t matter if it’s No. 1, or Florida State, or Western Kentucky, or Iowa State. They just like challenges. You’re an athlete, you’re a competitor, you want to play against the best.”
Notre Dame (6-0) won its final six games of the 2017-18 season and opened with six in a row in 2018-19. The Hawkeyes are 4-1, suffering their only loss the last time out by four points to Florida State in the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas.
“It’s almost more motivation,” said Iowa center Megan Gustafson, who averages 23 points and 13 rebounds a game. “It’s not fun to lose, but at the same time, it’s good to reflect and figure out what we need to work on, improve, and focus on those areas. It’s more like a chip on our shoulder than anything else.”
Plenty of positives were noticeable as the Hawkeyes split two games Nov. 23-24 in the Bahamas. Iowa overcame a 24-point deficit to knock off West Virginia, 84-81. The next day, the Hawkeyes grabbed an 8-0 lead, but couldn’t hold on during a 71-67 loss to the Seminoles.
“I never like coming off a loss. I know you have to learn from your losses, but I hate to learn that way,” Bluder said. “The thing that worries me is it was tough for us to play back-to-back games. We know the Big Ten Tournament is like that, those back-to-back games. We don’t have as much depth as we would like to have right now to be able to do that and that is concerning to me.”
Playing without injured guard Kathleen Doyle (broken hand) has limited Iowa’s production off the bench, since Alexis Sevillian has filled in as a starter. Bluder said Doyle had another X-Ray recently and will be out for at least another week.
“Kathleen’s depth would have helped us there,” Bluder said of the preseason All-Big Ten selection.
With Doyle on the sideline, the five Hawkeyes starters played at least 33 minutes against West Virginia and four of the five played at least 32 minutes against Florida State.
Now, Iowa’s team that loves a challenge, is challenged to play under control for 40 minutes…against the best of the best.
“We talk about knowing our scout, being disciplined, following the game plan, and playing hard,” said Iowa senior guard Tania Davis. “We know if we play hard and they play hard it is going to be a good game. That’s what we’re hoping for. If we win, it will shake up women’s basketball and that is something we would like to do. If we don’t win, we want to go out with our heads high, knowing we gave our all, limited turnovers, boxed out, and did everything we possibly could.”
Bluder and the Hawkeyes have faced the nation’s top-ranked team before. In the second round of the NCAA Championships on March 18, 2002, Iowa lost at Connecticut, 86-48. In the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Nov. 30, 2016, the Hawkeyes lost at home to Notre Dame, 73-58.
“We’re trying to be our best and we know it will be the ultimate challenge of the year and it’s the toughest challenge anybody can put themselves into,” Bluder said. “At the same time, our team is excited about having this opportunity.”