IOWA CITY - Winners in six of its last seven games, the 19th-ranked Iowa women's basketball team did all it could do to avoid playing in the 8-9 game in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
But the Hawkeyes didn't catch much of a break when the brackets were released last Monday. Iowa was awarded a six seed for winning 26 games during the regular season but will face an opponent in Marist that has made nine straight appearances in the Big Dance.
These Red Foxes aren't an ordinary mid-major program. And they have Iowa's undivided attention.
Iowa center Bethany Doolittle shoots during practice for the NCAA women's tournament Saturday in Iowa City.
"We are playing a great opponent who is obviously seasoned in the tournament," said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. "This won't be anything unusual for them. I know we're going to get their best shot."
The Hawkeyes (26-8) will serve as a host for the first two rounds for the 13th time in school history. The site is part of the Louisville Region and also features defending national runner-up Louisville and Idaho. The Cardinals and Vandals will play in the early game today at 4:30 and Iowa-Marist is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip-off at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The two winners from Sunday will meet in the second round at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Iowa is the only Big Ten Conference team to have appeared in the last seven NCAA tournaments. The Hawkeyes' 26 wins marks the highest total under Bluder since the team went 27-4 in 1995-96 and Bluder's bunch has won 20 or more games in six of the last seven seasons, too.
Iowa (26-8) vs. Marist (27-6)
Tonight, 7 p.m.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
"It's great to go up against an opponent like Iowa, which is scary similar to us in many ways," said Marist coach Brian Giorgis. "They are a very talented team, extremely well coached and what we like to call a better version of ourselves."
Marist is similar to Iowa. Both are seasoned veterans to the NCAA tournament and both have an entire starting lineup that averages in double-figures.
The Hawkeyes are led by junior point guard Samantha Logic, who is the only player in the country to average more than 13 points, more than six rebounds and more than seven assists per game. But junior center Bethany Doolittle (14.2 ppg), junior guard Melissa Dixon (13.4 ppg), freshman Ally Disterhoft (13.2 ppg) and senior Theairra Taylor (12.1 ppg) also scored in double figures. Disterhoft pulls down 6.4 rebounds per contest as well.
"It kind of counters each other or negates each other," said Bluder of both teams having five players average in double-figures. "They're in the same boat as us. I definitely think it will be a difficult situation for both coaches."
Emma O'Connor leads a Marist squad that won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. O'Connor averages 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest, but Madeline Blais (13 ppg), Leanne Ockenden (11.7 ppg), Sydney Coffey (11.5 ppg) and Casey Dulin (10.9 ppg) also score in double figures.
The Red Foxes defeated Oklahoma earlier this year by seven and lost at Ohio State by just three points. They have won a first-round game four times, including a 2007 NCAA tournament victory over the Buckeyes. Marist (27-6) lost to Michigan State in round one last season.
"I know my players are really smart and watch a lot of basketball," said Bluder about the Hawkeyes' first-round foe. "They have the utmost respect for Marist, not just from this week or knowing who they are. They've watched them the last few years, they know about the upsets. They know we are facing a good team."
Playing in front of fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena should help. The Hawkeyes drew more than 6,000 fans per game in last year's first two rounds. That was the third-best attended site in the nation. Iowa is hoping for a similar advantage today.
"It's win or go home. It's win or you're not going to be playing anymore," said Logic, an all-Big Ten first team selection this year. "There is a lot more riding on this game. You have to be ready to play for 40 minutes or you won't get another 40 minutes."
The Hawkeyes are 13-3 at home. And six of their eight losses came against ranked foes. Iowa beat Miami (Fla.) in the 8-9 game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last year before losing to top-seeded Notre Dame, which reached last year's Final Four.
"To be able to play at Carver is extra special for us," said Bluder. "It still feels like home even though the floor is different and the setting is different. I think there's absolutely an advantage to playing at home. How much, I don't know. But we didn't have to travel and we got to sleep in our own beds. We hopefully will have a few more fans in the stands the other three teams that are here."