It was always a long shot. Having a home court advantage is nice, but a cheering crowd and familiar rims can only take you so far when the opponent is as good as Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are the #1 seed in the Norfolk region (hey, NCAA -- just use directions, please) and probably the second-best team in the entire tournament (behind defending champion Baylor), so upsetting them would be a monumental accomplishment for Bluder's Bunch. Unfortunately, they couldn't get it done, falling 74-57 to Notre Dame in Iowa City last night, bringing Iowa's season to a close.
The gameplan for an Iowa upset involved a few things: shoot well from outside, avoid foul trouble (especially critical, given Iowa's lack of depth), and protect the ball. Unfortunately, Iowa failed on all three fronts. Iowa went 0/11 from 3-point range in the game, with several attempts missing badly. They had 18 fouls (to Notre Dame's 14), with several coming in the first half and getting key players like Samantha Logic in early foul trouble. And Iowa had 21 turnovers (to Notre Dame's 15). All of that added up to doom for Iowa's upset bid.
Notre Dame got off to a hot start, opening up a 24-12 lead before the second media timeout. Iowa kept battling, but could never mount a sustained run and never got the lead lower than 8 points. The main reason Iowa couldn't make much of a run is that every time they managed to score a few buckets, Notre Dame's Kayla McBride seemed to have an answer. She scored 24 of her 28 points in the first half and went 4/5 from deep, including a pair of dagger threes late in the half, when Iowa had again hacked the lead down to 8 points. She cooled off considerably in the second half, but the damage she had done in the first half was more than enough. Notre Dame's star player, Skylar Diggins, had a relatively quiet game by her standards, but still finished with 16 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals (as well as 7 turnovers).
Iowa was led by Bethany Doolittle, who had 16 points (on 8/14 shooting) and 5 rebounds. Theairra Taylor and Jaime Printy added 10 points apiece. Star point guard Samantha Logic, who had been so instrumental in carrying Iowa past Miami in their first round game Sunday night, had a difficult night on Tuesday. She had 9 points, 5 assists, and a team-high 9 rebounds... but she also had 11 (!) turnovers and 4 fouls. Iowa needed another massive performance out of her to have a chance at the upset, but the turnovers and fouls kept from ever really getting into the flow of the game.
The loss ends Iowa's season, dropping them to 21-13 overall. While the loss was disappointing (although not unexpected), the season as a whole fits comfortably into the pattern Bluder has established at Iowa: win around 20 games, make the NCAA Tournament, lose in R1 or R2. Iowa has made the NCAA Tournament in 10 of Bluder's 13 seasons at Iowa and in fact only once (2006-07) has a Bluder-coached Iowa team failed to make the postseason at all. She's been remarkably consistent at Iowa and considering all the injuries she's had to overcome (Angry Iowa Women's Basketball Hating God is real and she is vengeful), that's a very impressive and commendable accomplishment.
Iowa's biggest problem is probably the inability to rise higher than an #8 or #9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They've been an #8 or #9 seed in 7 of their 10 NCAA Tournament appearances; in 4 of those years they lost to their R1 opponent (a fellow #8 or #9 seed) and in the other 3 years they lost to the #1 seed in R2. #1 seeds in the women's NCAA Tournament rarely lose to teams other than fellow top-seeded teams, so playing one in the second round is basically a death sentence, even on your home floor. Bluder's two best teams, the 2000-01 squad that earned a #4 seed and the 2010-11 team that earned a #6 seed, were undone in part by home court advantage -- the 00-01 team lost to the #5 seed Utah -- in Salt Lake City -- while the 10-11 team lost to the #11 seed Gonzaga -- in Spokane, WA. It's frustrating that she's never been able to make it to the Sweet 16 at Iowa, but her record of tournament consistency is nothing to sniff at, either.
Tuesday night was also the final game for a trio of Iowa seniors, Trisha Nesbitt, Megan Johnson, and Jaime Printy. Replacing those three won't be easy (especially multi-year starters like Johnson and Printy); the hope is that Doolittle is able to replace Johnson's as Iowa's primary post player and that sophomore Melissa Dixon (previously Iowa's only reliable player off the bench) replaces Printy as the team's top sharpshooter. Between those two and the returning Logic and Taylor, Iowa should have a fairly solid core -- the trick to success next season will probably come down to whether or now Iowa can develop solid options beyond those four. No players beyond that quartet (and Johnson and Printy) played more than 7 minutes a game this year, so someone (or, really, someones) is going to have to emerge from relative obscurity to help out the Hawkeyes. Iowa is also adding a pair of ESPN Top 100 recruits next year (G Allyson Disterhoft and W Alexa Kastanek); they may be relied upon to be immediate contributors. But congratulations to the Iowa women on another pretty successful season. It ended sooner than we would have hoped, but it was still a pretty fine season overall.