Hawkeyes await Marist for lucky No. 7

IOWA CITY – There wasn’t a lot of drama that came with Iowa’s seventh consecutive trip into the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

The?19th-ranked Hawkeyes knew they were in. And they knew the game would be played inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The only unknown was the opponent. And a few minutes into ESPN’s broadcast of the tournament selection show, coach Lisa Bluder and her squad learned that they will face 11th-seeded Marist in the opening round Sunday.

Iowa was awarded a six seed after finishing in a tie for fourth in the Big Ten Conference and reaching the championship game of the conference tournament last weekend.

“We have been here a lot, which is great, but you still get excited,” said Bluder. “You still get excited to see your name.

“I think knowing that we were in the tournament let us relax and allowed us to work on things we knew we had to work on. We were able to work on us and not have to sweat whether or not we were going to be in the field.”

It will be the seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance for Bluder’s team. Only 14 other programs in the country can claim that.

The Hawkeyes’ first-round opponent is one of those teams as the Red Foxes have advanced to the tournament in nine straight seasons.

“We are excited with the seed and we’ll try to get better this week and get ready for Sunday,” said Iowa freshman Ally Disterhoft, who is one of five Hawkeyes averaging in double figures. “Every team that makes the NCAA tournament is a good team, and we’ll have to be ready to play. I think we will.”

The Iowa-Marist game will be televised live on ESPN2, with Holly Rowe and Brenda VanLengen calling the action. This will be the first-ever meeting between the Hawkeyes (26-8) and Red Foxes (27-6).

The opening game at 4:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon will pit third-seeded Louisville against 14th-seeded Idaho. The two first-round winners will then play in the next round at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“You avoid playing that No. 1 seed in the next round, which is huge,” said Disterhoft. “We have a great opportunity playing in front of our fans for two games so hopefully we can get some good crowds and take advantage of that.”

Even though Iowa avoids facing a top seed in round two, the Hawkeyes could meet last year’s national runner-up in Louisville. The Cardinals (30-4) reached the championship game in 2013 as a four seed and were probably good enough to get a two seed this year.

“I felt like we were going to be close to a 6 anyway, so there wasn’t a surprise,” said Bluder. “Louisville probably should be a two seed, so that was disheartening, but we have to stay focused on Marist and get that first one.”

And beating Marist won’t be easy. The Red Foxes are not your typical mid-major squad. They won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the 11th straight season and cut down the nets in the conference tournament for the ninth straight time.

Senior Emma O’Connor was a first team All-MAAC selection by the coaches, while sophomore Madeline Blais (second team) and senior Leanne Ockenden (third team) also received all-conference honors. O’Connor leads the team in points (13.6) and rebounds per game (6.8).

Marist and Iowa share one common opponent this season – Ohio State. The Red Foxes traveled to Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 23 as part of the Hall of Fame Challenge and lost 62-59 to the Buckeyes. Iowa went 3-0 against Ohio State, claiming both regular season matchups and downing Ohio State, 77-73, in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.

“We’ll know much more about them at this time tomorrow,” said Bluder. “Marist is similar to us, from what I can see so far. They average five in double-figures, which is unusual. They are a great 3-point shooting team.”

Iowa will play in the NCAA tournament for the 23rd time in school history. Bluder has advanced her Hawkeyes into the tournament for the 10th time in her 14 years as coach. Iowa also will be a host site for the 13th time. The Hawkeyes are 10-5 all-time in NCAA tournament games in Iowa City.

“We are playing pretty well overall, so we hope to continue that,” said Iowa’s junior point guard Samantha Logic. “It was nice to fix some things and work on yourselves for a week. But, we want to get back on the court and get it going again.”