How sweet it is. Lisa Bluder has accomplished a lot during her 15-year career at Iowa. She's won over 300 games, won a Big Ten title (in 2008), won a Big Ten Tournament title (in 2001), and is on a streak of eight straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. But one thing she had never done at Iowa was have a team keep playing on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Until now.
Iowa rode a superlative-defying second half performance to an 88-70 second round win over #11 seed Miami on Sunday afternoon, locking up a spot in the Sweet 16 for the Hawkeyes. As mentioned, it's Iowa first trip to the Sweet 16 since Bluder's arrival in the 2000-01 season and the Iowa women's first Sweet 16 appearance overall since 1996. (It's also Iowa's first Sweet 16 appearance, men or women, since the Iowa men made the second weekend back in 1999. So this is the first time in the 21st century that an Iowa basketball team has made it to the Sweet 16.) It's a tremendous achievement for Bluder and the Hawkeyes and one that's been a long time coming.
This senior class began their odyssey for a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012, making the NCAA Tournament as a #9 seed; unfortunately, they lost in the first round to #8 seed California, 84-74. Iowa returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2013, again as a #9 seed, but they used home court advantage (Iowa City was a host site in 2013) to topple #8 seed Miami, 69-53. Iowa went up against #1 seed (and eventual Final Four team) Notre Dame in the next round, though, and came up short, 74-57. Iowa was back in the NCAA Tournament in 2014, this time as a #6 seed, and they used home court advantage (Iowa City was once again a host site in 2014) to help knock off #11 seed Marist, 87-65. Iowa was once again set packing in the second round, though, getting swept aside by #3 seed Louisville, 83-53.
Iowa again got to play the first two rounds in Iowa City this year, but the big difference between this year and the previous seasons was that Iowa was finally the best team in the pod of teams playing over the weekend. There was no higher seed that needed to be upset in the second round to make it to the Sweet 16; this year the Hawkeyes were that higher seed, earning a #3 seed after a tremendous regular season performance. The table was set for Iowa to finally break through and get to the second weekend of the tournament: they were at home (where they had been 16-0 over the course of the regular season) and they were by far the best team among the four teams competing for a spot in the Sweet 16. The only thing Iowa had to do was take care of business -- and take care of business they did.
The first half of the game with Miami was a bit of a slog, thanks to a host of turnovers, fouls, and poor shooting by Iowa. Iowa led 38-31 at the break, but only thanks to a late 15-4 run to end the half. Iowa shot just 36.4% (12/33) in the first half, although making 12/12 free throws helped offset the poor shooting from the floor. Whatever the Hawkeyes did at halftime, though... well, let's just say if they could bottle it and sell it to teams around the country, they could make a fortune. Iowa scored 50 points (!) in the second half and shot a stupefying 75% (18/24) from the floor in the second half, including 60% (3/5) from three-point range. And they left several points out there -- after that perfect FT shooting performance in the first half, Iowa went just 52.4% (11/21) from the charity stripe in the second half. It didn't matter because almost every shot from the floor that Iowa put up in the second half found the bottom of the net. It was one of the best shooting performances you're likely to see. It wasn't a case of a ton of Iowa jump shots suddenly falling, either -- a huge portion of the shots Iowa took were at the rim, owing to some brilliant cutting and movement on offense or some aggressive drives to the basket in transition. It was simply beautiful offense.
For the second straight game, all five Iowa starters scored in double figures, a testament to the balanced scoring attack this Hawkeye team boasts. The star of the day for Iowa was Bethany Doolittle, who posted 22 points (on 8/16 shooting), 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals, and 1 assist. That's quite a stat line. Ally Disterhoft added 15 points (on 4.7 shooting), while Melissa Dixon and Sam Logic each chipped in 12 points apiece. Logic also added 5 rebounds and 7 assists (and, unfortunately, 7 turnovers). Whitney Jennings was the final starter in the double figures, with 11 points to go with 3 assists and 2 rebounds.
But Iowa also got big-time contributions from the bench. Chase Coley, Kali Paschel, and Alexa Kastarnek combined for 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists -- valuable production (especially in the first half) that kept things rolling for Iowa. Peschel had 8 points (on 3/3 shooting) and 5 rebounds in 14 minutes and was a tremendous sparkplug off the bench for Iowa. Miami's star guards, Jessica Thomas and Adrienne Motley, had solid games, scoring 20 and 18 points (though it took Thomas 22 shots to record her 20 points), respectively, but they didn't get nearly enough help from their teammates on Sunday to keep pace with the Hawkeyes.
Although, frankly, it wouldn't have mattered much -- if a team can score 50 points in a half and shoot 75% from the field, there's not much you can do except tip your hat to them and say "well done." That's what I'd say to Iowa after yesterday: Well done. Congratulations on finally breaking through and getting that Sweet 16 appearance that you deserved after your excellent season. Now let's see how far this tournament ride can go.
Iowa will play #2 seed Baylor (who beat #7 seed Arkansas, 73-44, on Sunday) on Friday in Oklahoma City. Game time and TV information is TBD. (EDIT: Iowa will play Baylor at 6:30 PM CT on Friday. ESPN2 will have TV coverage.) Baylor will be an exceptionally difficult opponent, but we'll worry about that later in the week. For now, let's just celebrate Iowa's success and the Sweet 16 trip they're finally going to make.