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Iowa women’s basketball ‘trying to enjoy every single second’ on Final Four stage
Hawkeyes’ trip to Final Four is ‘everything you kind of dream of since you were a little kid’
DALLAS — As Iowa women’s basketball arrived Monday evening in Dallas, a normally-mundane deplaning process from the charter flight was anything but mundane.
A tent awaited the Hawkeyes at the airport.
Once inside, athletes danced to music from the NCAA’s DJ for the week, “DJ Shawna.” Coaches and players posed for photos on a throne set up in the tent.
“That was crazy,” center Addison O’Grady said. “Coach (Lisa) Bluder had her little crown on.”
Yes, Bluder willingly wore the crown as she spun a basketball on her finger with a big smile on her face.
“I think she went pretty willingly, actually,” O’Grady said. “I think they got all the coaches first and then her.”
It’s one of many examples of how this game week — the one leading up to Friday’s Final Four game against South Carolina — is far from an ordinary game week for the Hawkeyes.
“This is everything you kind of dream of since you were a little kid,” star guard Caitlin Clark said. “It's pretty special, and I'm just trying to enjoy every single second of it.”
While some coaches may preach against basking in the fanfare of a major game so they can better focus on the game itself, Iowa’s coaching staff does not see it as an either-or situation.
“You can be happy and grateful to be here and also approach (the game) well,” Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen said. “Look around, enjoy it. Look at the logos, look at the big banners outside of American Airlines Center.”
That philosophy was on display Thursday at American Airlines Center during Iowa’s open practice and media obligations.
Bluder danced for a few moments with ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe to the “Cupid Shuffle” at the end of the Hawkeyes’ open practice.
As Clark had a news conference for winning Associated Press National Player of the Year, one of the Iowa players asked who Clark’s favorite teammate was.
“No comment,” Clark said.
The Hawkeyes’ first two full days in Dallas included a potpourri of fun festivities.
“We've had police escorts everywhere, which has made us feel really cool, too,” Iowa guard Kate Martin said.
Nike gave each player a tote bag that they could customize — Martin put her initials, number, smiley faces and “Final Four” on hers — and a lot of gear.
“The whole bag is stuff I will wear every single day,” O’Grady said with a laugh.
The NCAA also had a get-together for all of the athletes at the Division I, II and III levels.
“That was really fun to get to meet other people from different teams,” Martin said.
The Hawkeyes are enjoying an experience that is extremely rare for programs outside of a few top-tier schools.
Iowa’s last trip to the Final Four was in 1993, which was several years before any of this year’s athletes were born. Only two Big Ten teams have gone to the Final Four in the previous 16 seasons.
By the time of Thursday’s media availability, the gravity of the trip was “really starting to set in” for Martin.
“I just feel really lucky; really, really honored,” Martin said.
Iowa flew directly from Seattle — the site of the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds — to Dallas, which prevented the Hawkeyes from experiencing even more fanfare.
“I'm glad that we didn't go home to Iowa City,” Martin said. “I’m sure people are buzzing around Iowa City right now, and we’re just trying to stay humble.”
The Final Four also comes with an increased spotlight on the Hawkeyes.
Last Sunday’s Iowa-Louisville Elite Eight matchup averaged a record-high 2.5 million TV viewers. The Iowa-South Carolina game, featuring the last two national players of the year, will surely surpass that.
“If you think about that too much, you can get some nerves,” Martin said. “You’ve really just got to stay in your circle.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. on ESPN. The watch party at Carver-Hawkeye Arena has been canceled because of a severe weather threat.
South Carolina (36-0) will be a daunting task. The Gamecocks have five players who are 6-foot-3 or taller.
The Hawkeyes still have a little more time to enjoy being on the big stage, though.
“Whether we win or lose or draw, I think they are enjoying it,” Jensen said of her team. “And they should.”