Top-ranked Baylor stands between Iowa and its first Final Four berth in 26 years, but don’t suggest to the Hawkeyes that they might be an underdog in tonight’s NCAA women’s basketball regional final.
“We have the utmost respect for Baylor, they are an awesome great team, but it would be really cool to knock off the overall number one seed,’’ Iowa senior Hannah Stewart said Sunday. “We know we will have to be at our best, but that’s what we are focused on doing.’’
That doesn’t surprise coach Lisa Bluder, who doesn’t expect to need any fiery motivational speeches to get the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes ready for today’s 6 p.m. game at Greensboro, N.C., where a spot in Friday’s Final Four in Tampa is on the line.
“We are 40 minutes away from every kid’s dream,’’ Bluder said. “If you’re a basketball player, you want to play in the Final Four. I don’t have to worry about them being hungry at this point.’’
Bluder’s worries do center on the sizable challenge eighth-ranked Iowa faces from the Bears.
Baylor has built its 34-1 record on the strength of its front court — 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Big 12 defensive player of the year Lauren Cox — and a look different from many of the opponents the Hawkeyes have faced.
“Not very many times anymore do teams have two bigs anymore. It’s kind of unusual,’’ Bluder said. “… Lauren and Kalani are terrific post players, but I think I’ve got two terrific post players. I think it’s going to be a great match-up.’’
Iowa will give up a couple of inches at both inside spots, countering Baylor’s size with 6-3 Megan Gustafson and Stewart at 6-2.
“We’ve got to be ready for that physical play,’’ Gustafson said, comparing the Bears’ inside approach to what the Hawkeyes dealt with against Maryland and Nebraska in Big Ten play.
Both Brown and Gustafson are finalists for the Lisa Leslie Award as the nation’s top post player, but Baylor coach Kim Mulkey downplayed the match-up between two premier senior centers.
“Gustafson’s the national player of the year, so we’ve got our hands full,’’ Mulkey said. “Everything they do offensively goes through Gustafson but if you try to go down there and double her or help, she has perimeter players that shoot the three ball and you can’t leave them open. She isn’t doing it by herself.’’
In that respect, Iowa has built its 29-6 record by mirroring Baylor’s team approach to the game.
All five starters scored in double figures for the Bears in their semifinal win over South Carolina.
The Bears lead the nation in assists, averaging 22.8 per game and right behind them are the Hawkeyes, second in the country at 21.7 per game.
Iowa leads the country in shooting at 52 percent while Baylor hasn’t allowed an opponent to top 50 percent from the field this season, leading the nation in holding opponents to 31.3 percent shooting.
The Bears’ defense benefits from its size, leading the country with an average of 7.2 blocks per game.
“They’re in your face defensively, so we’re going to have to be strong with the ball,’’ Iowa guard Tania Davis said. “Their guards, they’re a lot like Maryland and Rutgers and we’ve played them so we feel like we’re pretty much prepared for it.’’
Bluder labels the Baylor defense “remarkable,’’ but said the Hawkeyes’ approach won’t change.
“We have to do what we do and do it best,’’ Bluder said, pointing to the balance Iowa had in Saturday’s 79-61 semifinal win over North Carolina State as an example. “We have to have other people step up. It can’t just be our inside players and I thought (against the Wolfpack) we had good balance. I think we’re going to have to rely on that balance because they do such a great job defensively.’’
The match-up against an opponent in Baylor that has won its last 26 games comes in Iowa’s first Elite Eight appearance since reaching the Final Four in 1993.
The Bears, by comparison, have reached this point eight times in the last 10 seasons but haven’t reached the Final Four since winning a national championship in 2012.
“It’s about these kids here now. They are the ones who have to go out there on the floor and they have to do it,’’ Mulkey said. “It’s an exciting time for all those kids on both teams, and it should be.’’
Bluder appreciates that as well.
“We know we have things stacked against us, but it only takes once and maybe this will be that once,’’ Bluder said. “I know my team won’t back down to anybody. We know and respect Baylor, but we’re ready to play.’’