The Iowa women’s basketball team spent the last four months building an NCAA tournament resume.
The Hawkeyes’ body of work this season includes 26 wins, a fourth-place Big Ten finish and a spot in the conference tournament title game.
All its regular season work got Iowa the position it wanted, a spot in the NCAA tournament as a No. 6 seed.
Now it’s time for the Hawkeyes to get to work.
March is the time of the year, with the spotlight shining the brightest, that few care how you got here, just that you’re here.
Getting to this point has become customary for the Hawkeyes under coach Lisa Bluder.
The Hawkeyes are making their seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance and 11th in 14 seasons under Bluder.
Advancing in the tournament hasn’t been as common.
Iowa (26-8) will be trying to win its opening round game for the fifth time during Bluder’s 14 seasons when they take on 11th-seeded Marist (27-6) at 7 p.m. Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Officially, Iowa enters the NCAA tournament coming off a loss.
The Hawkeyes fell to No. 13 Nebraska 72-65 in the Big Ten tournament championship game in its last game March 9.
Although Iowa enters the most important game of the season coming off a loss, it hardly feels that way to the Hawkeyes.
Iowa won three games in three days at the Big Ten Tournament before running out of gas and fouls against the Husk<FZ,1,1,12>ers and has played its best basketball of the season in the weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
The loss to Nebraska snapped a six-game winning streak for Iowa, which has won nine of its last 11 games entering Sunday’s opening round tilt with Marist.
Iowa hardly feels like a team coming into the NCAA tournament following a loss.
“We feel good about the way that we are playing right now,” Bluder said. “Our first practice back from the Big Ten Tournament, I said to our team, ‘A lot of people just remember the last game and I don’t you guys to think about that right now. I want you to think about how well we are playing and that game could have went either way and that we were so close to winning a Big Ten championship.’ And I wanted them to have those good feelings going into practice last week, and I think they really embraced that.”
That’s not to say that Iowa can simply bully its way past opening-round opponent Marist.
This is, after all, March Madness, and Marist isn’t a flash-in-the-pan outfit.
You don’t win 27 games without being an excellent team and you don’t reach nine straight NCAA tournaments unless you are an established program.
Brian Giorgis’ group of Red Foxes are both.
Yet Sunday’s NCAA tournament is more about Iowa than the team that lines up opposite them.
“We respect Marist,” Bluder said. “Marist has been a good program, we know that, so I think the key is always to respect every opponent and never look too far down the line but have a lot of confidence. We are a higher seed because on paper we are a better team. Let’s go prove it on the court Sunday.”
There is plenty Iowa will need to take care of Sunday against Marist if the Hawkeyes are to win their NCAA Tournament opener for the second consecutive season.
Iowa needs to find some easy baskets against a Marist team that led the MAAC in scoring defense allowing 59 points per game.
The Hawkeyes will have to ramp up their rebounding after giving up 26 offensive rebounds and being out-rebounded by 31 in the Big Ten title loss to Nebraska.
Iowa is 12-1 when out-rebounding opponents this season compared to 14-7 when allowing opponents to win the battle on the boards.
The Hawkeyes need to avoid the foul problems that plagued them in the Big Ten Tournament, and they need to contain Marist’s do-it-all senior Emma O’Connor and not let dead-eye sophomore shooter Madeline Blais roam free on the perimeter.
Mostly what Iowa needs to do Sunday is take care of itself and play its own game.
That selfless, team-oriented, tough-willed style that helped the Hawkeyes win the most games ever under Bluder and the same style that was on display in Indianapolis needs to be seen Sunday.
Marist isn’t going to roll over for Iowa and the Hawkeyes are surely prepared for a fight.
However, if this game comes down to toughness, it’s a game that plays right into Iowa’s hands.