March 16, 1996 was a significant day for the Iowa women’s basketball program, but Lisa Bluder wasn’t around to enjoy it.
She was the women’s basketball coach at Drake University at that time, so Iowa making the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 on that day 18 years ago was no reason to celebrate.
It sure would be now, though.
A berth in the NCAA Sweet 16 is one of the few things that has eluded Bluder since she left Drake after the 1999-2000 season to coach at Iowa, where she has built and sustained a respectable program.
In fact, Iowa hasn’t advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 since eking out a 72-71 victory over DePaul on the aforementioned date in Iowa City. It’s been in position to do it six times, including four times under Bluder, only to lose to a higher-seeded team in the second round.
Bluder’s bunch is back in that familiar position, just one victory from advancing to the Sweet 16, but with yet another powerhouse program standing in the way
Iowa will have to defeat No. 3 seed and 2013 NCAA runner-up Louisville on Tuesday night in the second round to go where no Hawkeye squad has gone since 1996.
“Yeah, it would mean a lot,” Bluder said at a Monday news conference. “It’s something that has eluded me personally, and our program has certainly been there. We’ve been in the Final Four in 1993. But it’s been a while.
“It’s something that our team would really, really like to have the opportunity to claim that they did. They’ve talked about it. But we know it’s a very difficult task. It’s a very difficult thing to get to the final 16 teams in the country.”
The circumstances seem more favorable this time with Iowa playing at home and facing a No. 3 seed instead of facing a No. 1 seed on the road. Although Bluder has trouble accepting Louisville as a No. 3 seed.
The Cardinals are 31-4 overall with three of their losses coming against top-ranked Connecticut. Louisville also is 30-0 in games when it has the lead with under five minutes remaining.
“I feel like lots of times we’ve been up against the Notre Dames and Connecticuts in this situation, and Louisville is certainly to be talked about among that group,” Bluder said. “But at least we have it on our home court.”
Iowa also has five starters who are averaging in double figures in scoring, including all-Big Ten junior point guard Samantha Logic.
“I feel like this is our best opportunity,” Bluder said.
It should be apparent early on if Iowa can hang with Louisville. Notre Dame met little resistance while defeating Iowa 74-57 in last year’s second-round game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa is better now than it was last season. It’s also hard to picture Louisville being superior to what Notre Dame was last season.
Iowa just needs to stay within striking distance and then anything is possible, especially when playing at home.
A victory would be the latest milestone for Bluder in a season filled with milestones.
She became Iowa’s all-time winningest basketball coach for men and women this season, and her team’s 27 victories equal the second-highest total in school history.
Iowa also is the only Big Ten women’s team — and one of just 14 overall — to have appeared in the last seven NCAA Tournaments.
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments, but now it’s time to seize the moment and take the next step as a program. It’s time for Bluder to erase one of the few blemishes on her resume.
It’s time for the Iowa players to give Bluder that breakthrough win that she so desperately wants.
“I feel like this is the perfect team to do so,” said senior Theairra Taylor. “We’ve been so close, gotten to this mark so many times. Frankly, we’re sick of doing it. We’re going to go out and give it our best shot.”
Frankly, anything less than Iowa’s best shot probably wouldn’t be enough.