Late-season rally gave Hawkeyes chance to host NCAA games

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — It was just a few weeks ago when Iowa wasn’t sure it was going to be a host school for the first two rounds of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Since then, the Hawkeyes rallied to win two championships and get a chance to open the tournament in front of a sellout home crowd.

Iowa (23-7), which shared the Big Ten regular-season championship and won the conference tournament, is the No. 2 seed in the Greensboro Regional, playing 15th-seeded Illinois State (19-13) on Friday.

No. 7 seed Colorado (22-8) will play 10th-seeded Creighton (20-9) in the other first-round game.

Reaching this point meant the Hawkeyes had to get through COVID-19 issues within their own program as well as others, and battling injuries that left them with just eight available players in late January. Iowa went 3-4 in a stretch in December and early January that included a home loss to IUPUI and Northwestern.

“Obviously we weren’t at our best then, and then we had to deal with injuries and COVID and things like that,” said Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, an Associated Press first-team All-American who leads the nation in scoring at 27.4 points per game. “I don’t think we ever hung our heads or anything like that. I think we knew we had so many opportunities still in front of us, and we took full advantage of them.”

The Hawkeyes are on a seven-game winning streak, rallying in the closing weeks after an 81-69 home loss to Maryland. The stretch included a sweep of Indiana over a three-day period and a 104-80 win over Michigan in the regular-season finale to share the conference championship with Ohio State. Then came three wins in the Big Ten Tournament.

A sellout crowd of 14,382 is expected Friday, the second consecutive full house for the Hawkeyes at home. It will be Iowa’s first game in 12 days.

“You want them to have that little bit of excitement, a little bit of nerves,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I want them to be excited. I want them to have those jitters a little bit, and then I know that we’ll be able to, after that first media timeout, kind of everybody take a deep breath and then let’s go from here and then enjoy the experience.”

The Hawkeyes reached the regional semifinals last season despite ranking 336th in scoring defense, allowing 80.3 points per game. Iowa is allowing almost 10 points less per game this season.

“Definitely I think we made some schematic things that helped us defensively,” Bluder said. “Also I think the team just understands the importance of it. We talked about how last year we got to the Sweet 16 with a really, really good offense but a pretty poor defense. And if we want to go farther, which all these women want to do, then we had to improve the defense.”

Illinois State lost four of its last five games of the regular season, then won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

The Redbirds are making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2008.

“It will definitely be a new experience. But how awesome?” Illinois State coach Kristen Gillespie said. “We’re thrilled. It sure beats the alternative of watching on TV.”

COLORADO-CREIGHTON

Colorado opened the season with 13 consecutive wins before hitting a stretch in which the Buffaloes lost six of seven games. They won eight of their last 10 games, with the only losses coming to No. 2 Stanford.

“I just think we’re playing more as a team,” said forward Peanut Tuitele. “We’re coming together. We’re communicating a lot more. We’re executing defensively and offensively. And I think we just bought in 100% into the coaches’ blueprint and I think that’s led a long way.”

The Buffs are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.

“We wanted to put Colorado back on the map of being that national championship state,” said forward Mya Hollingshed, the team’s leading scorer who was part of coach JR Payne’s first recruiting class. “And this is what kids dream about, playing basketball, coming to the NCAA Tournament, just doing this.”

Creighton leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and assists per game. Colorado allows just 56.8 points per game.

“Neither team is getting to a hundred (points) tomorrow unless we’re playing a lot of overtimes,” Creighton coach Jim Flanery said.

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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