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IOWA CITY — Iowa field hockey goalkeeper Grace McGuire said that this has been the most stressed she’s been all week.
Not because the team is playing in the Final Four on Friday, but because she was being interviewed about it. She cracks a smile and laughs when a reporter asked about her calm, smiling demeanor.
“Right now, this interview, not the hockey,” McGuire said. “We train all the time. We train overtime situations. We train with a player down. That’s the easy part — to put it all to use. But I’m nervous about this interview, I’m sweating right now.”
No. 4 Iowa played most of its season as the favored team, but enters as the underdog against No. 1 North Carolina at noon (CT) Friday (ESPN3). Iowa is in its 12th Final Four, while the Tar Heels are the reigning national champions, entering their 12th consecutive national semifinal appearance.
“Typically this season, we had a huge target on our backs every game,” Iowa head coach Lisa Cellucci said. “On paper, we're the underdog, but I'll tell you, North Carolina is taking us very seriously. They know what type of team we have. They know what type of outstanding defense we have.”
That defense is anchored by junior Anthe Nijziel, the Big Ten Player and Defensive Player of the Year. The Hawkeyes have only allowed 11 goals, 39 shots on goal, and 80 overall shots this year, and shut out six teams through eight games in the Big Ten season.
“What I improved in my game is my communication,” Nijziel said. “Without Lokke (Stribos) and Harper (Dunne), I wouldn’t have had that award. It’s definitely a team award, our team defense has been awesome this year, but with our communication and connection, we know how we’ve trained and how we can put that into our game.”
McGuire has stayed steady in goal with 29 saves on the season, allowing 11 goals.
That defense will be important against players like junior forward Erin Matson, a three-time ACC Player of the Year who spearheads an offense that averages 3.22 goals per 15.9 shots.
Earlier this season, Iowa struggled with four losses in the month of April, including two against No. 5 Northwestern and a semifinal loss to No. 2 Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. But it’s riding the momentum of a revenge tour, coming off a 3-1 victory over the Wildcats to earn its Final Four berth.
“If I could do it again, and know that we would get to the end of the season, we probably would have changed our training regimen back in January because I think we had kind of a point of fatigue,” Cellucci said. “The team has rebounded from those four losses, especially those two Northwestern games, and we definitely have been on the revenge tour now.”
Iowa’s offense is led by seniors who have been waiting for this stage for years. Maddy Murphy currently leads the Hawkeyes with 15 points, including eight goals. Ellie Holley has 12 points, including three goals. They’ve been there for Iowa’s elimination in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2017-18, a Sweet 16 appearance in 2018-19, an Elite Eight appearance in 2019-20, and now the Final Four.
And it’s the second year in a row the Hawkeyes will meet the Tar Heels on the national stage. UNC leads the two teams’ meetings 30-3. The last time Iowa defeated UNC was in 2008.
“We're all very excited but I think under the surface, we're not at all surprised,” Murphy said. “I think we deserve to be here. We've worked really hard to get to where we are today. We’re going to bring everything we’ve got.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Iowa beat North Carolina in the Elite Eight in 2008, when Iowa actually defeated UNC during the regular season. The last time Iowa beat UNC in the NCAA Tournament was in the 1999 Elite Eight.
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