There's an Iowa basketball team ripping off wins, playing a fun, fast-paced style, and scoring a ton of points this year... but it might not be the one you're accustomed to. Lisa Bluder's Hawkeyes began the year with big dreams and sizable expectations that this would be the year that they managed to put together a run in the Big Ten and, best of all, the NCAA Tournament. Three months into the season and they're absolutely living up to those expectations. Iowa's 16-3 overall and 7-1 in Big Ten play, firmly ensconced in second place in the league. They're ranked #20 in the latest AP Poll (released yesterday) and #17 in the newest USA Today Coaches Poll (released today), where they're the second-highest ranked Big Ten squad (behind #5 Maryland).
Last night featured one of Iowa's biggest wins of the season, a thrilling 78-72 comeback victory over #15 Nebraska in overtime at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Nebraska has been a monkey on Iowa's back since the day they officially joined the Big Ten in the 2011-12 season, beating Iowa in all eight encounters the teams have had since the Cornhuskers joined the B1G time. Sometimes the losses have been close (like a 77-72 loss in 2012 or a 76-75 heartbreaker in 2013) and sometimes they've been blowouts (like a 66-46 dumptrucking later in 2013). In a strange twist, Nebraska has also eliminated Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament each of the past three seasons -- at the quarterfinal stage in 2012 and 2013 and, most gut-wrenchingly, in the finals a season ago. What Michigan State has been to the Iowa men since Fran's arrival, Nebraska has been pretty much the same thing to the Iowa women: a constant foil that always gets the better of them, the persistent nemesis they just can't get past.
Until last night.
In the beginning, it didn't look like the same old story for Iowa against Nebraska: another game, another frustrating loss. Nebraska opened up the game on an 8-0 run and Iowa didn't crack double digits until the 11-minute mark of the half. But while their offense struggled, Nebraska's offense wasn't lighting up the CHA scoreboard, either and so Iowa was able to keep the game relatively close. The Hawkeyes went into the break down 28-21.
Fortunately, the light flipped on for the Iowa shooters in the second half (and, later, overtime): Iowa shot nearly 60% from the field in the final 25 minutes of the game, scored 40 points in the second half, and roared back from a 10-point deficit. Sophomore Ally Disterhoft led the way for the Hawkeyes, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 rebounds -- almost all of that coming in the second half and overtime of the game. She even contributed some strong post defense... despite the fact that she's a 6-0 guard. Just a sophomore, Disterhoft is fast on her way to becoming a star for Iowa.
Senior point guard Sam Logic already is a star for Iowa, averaging 11.5 ppg, a team high 6.8 rpg, and 7.1 apg (5th best in the nation). What Disterhoft didn't do last night, Logic did, pouring in a game-high 22 points (on 10/18 shooting), 7 rebounds, and 8 assists. Disterhoft and Logic each made clutch bucket after clutch bucket for Iowa down the stretch -- 3s, long 2s, nifty up and under moves in the paint. You name it and they probably scored it for Iowa.
That was huge because Iowa's usual scoring ace, Melissa Dixon, had a down performance, scoring just 7 points on 2/6 shooting. Dixon is one of the top three-point shooters in the country (her 45.2% 3FG average is 9th best nationally and the 3.68 3s she drains per game is 2nd best nationally), but she was just 1/2 from deep last night. It's a testament to the strength of this Iowa team that they could beat a team as solid as Nebraska without a big performance from one of their top players. But Iowa got key contributions from several places -- Bethany Doolittle added 12 points and 6 rebounds in just 23 minutes of work, limited by foul trouble (2 early fouls kept her riveted to the bench in the first half), while freshman Chase Coley added 4 points and 3 rebounds in 9 minutes of work filling in for Doolittle and Kali Paschel added 5 points and 4 rebounds as well.
You can catch highlights of Iowa's big win below:
VIDEO: Miss out on the excitement in Carver last night? Relive the memorable win over Nebraska here! http://t.co/X38JhUSzb8— Iowa Women's BBall (@IowaWBB) January 27, 2015
As noted earlier, with the win Iowa moves to 7-1 in conference, just a game behind Maryland (8-0) for the top spot in the Big Ten. A scheduling quirk means Iowa plays three games in a seven day span this week: last night's home win over Nebraska, a Thursday night road clash with Northwestern and a huge road game on Sunday against Maryland (3 PM CT, ESPN2). This is the beginning of a difficult stretch of the schedule for Iowa: after playing four of their last five games at home, they play four of their next five (and six of their next eight) on the road. In addition to the potential first-place showdown with Maryland, Iowa has games upcoming against another persistent bugaboo team, Ohio State, and a rematch with Nebraska. Iowa's Big Ten title credentials are going to be put to the test over the next few weeks.
And now a few words about the NCAA Tournament... Iowa's up to a 3-seed in ESPN's latest mock bracket.
The issue for Iowa isn't just making the tournament -- that should be a given this year. We're not worried about bubbles or sweating things on Selection
Sunday Monday. No, this year the issue for Iowa is positioning themselves in the NCAA Tournament so that they can make a bit of a run. Lisa Bluder has had a tremendously consistent and successful tenure at Iowa, but the one knock that you can make on her squads is that they haven't done much in the NCAA Tournament -- none of her Iowa teams have made it even as far as the Sweet 16.
Obviously, the NCAA Tournament is a crapshoot and it's always going to be hard to win games there (even more so when you consider the contortions the NCAA makes to arrange the field in order to ensure decent crowds and palatable figures at the gate), but still. It would be nice to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament at least once, you know?
One of the issues for Iowa under Bluder is that while they make the NCAA Tournament like clockwork, they're rarely (if ever) the best team in their 4-team pod, which makes it hard to be the last team standing from that pod when teams move onto the Sweet 16. The cream tends to rise to the top in women's basketball; upsets from lower-seeded teams just aren't as frequent as you see in the men's game, especially among teams with top-4 seeds. So the best way for Iowa to get out of one of those pods and make it to the Sweet 16? Be the best team in the pod. They have a good chance of doing that this season. This is one of the best teams Bluder has assembled at Iowa -- in Logic, Disterhoft, and Dixon Iowa has three potent scorers and tremendous all-around players and in Doolittle they have a solid interior presence (although they don't have a ton of depth behind her). If Iowa's ever going to break that barrier and make the Sweet 16 under Bluder, it feels like this is the year to do so. But that's a few months away -- for now, we should just enjoy their run through the regular season. It's already produced some entertaining basketball and thrilling wins (like last night) and it promises to provide even more over the next ten games.