Iowa Women's Basketball

Red-letter day for Iowa women's basketball has arrived

Hawkeyes meet No. 1 Notre Dame in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Iowa's Megan Gustafson (10) and Notre Dame's Jackie Young (5) struggle for the ball during their game Nov. 30, 2016, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Fighting Irish won that game, 73-58. They meet again Thursday in South Bend, Ind., and — like two years ago — Notre Dame is ranked No. 1. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa's Megan Gustafson (10) and Notre Dame's Jackie Young (5) struggle for the ball during their game Nov. 30, 2016, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Fighting Irish won that game, 73-58. They meet again Thursday in South Bend, Ind., and — like two years ago — Notre Dame is ranked No. 1. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Megan Gustafson already has played this game in her head.

Play. Pause. Rewind. Play.

“I’ve played it over and over in my head so many times,” Gustafson said Wednesday. “I see us playing as hard as we possibly can, and I see us winning.”

In a game Gustafson “has had circled on my calendar for a long time,” the 15th-ranked Iowa women’s basketball team gets its shot at No. 1 Notre Dame as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Tipoff is 6 p.m. (Iowa time) at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind.; the game will be televised by ESPN2.

“Nothing like a challenge, right?” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “It’s the ultimate challenge, the toughest challenge we could be put to. What we talk about is being our best, and don’t worry about the scoreboard or the opponent.”

The Hawkeyes’ last encounter with a No. 1 team was two years ago, a 73-58 loss to Notre Dame at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Their last conquest of No. 1? Dec. 30, 1987, against Texas in the Burger King/Orange Bowl Classic in Miami.

Notre Dame (6-0) is the defending NCAA champion. Arike Ogunbowale hit back-to-back buzzer-beaters in the semifinal (against Connecticut) and in the championship game (against Mississippi State).

Now a senior guard, Ogunbowale is averaging 24.5 points per game this season.

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“She’s a great player, everybody knows that,” Iowa guard Tania Davis said. “She willed Notre Dame to the championship last year.

“We want to limit her touches and contain her. We’s going to take tough shots and make tough shots.”

Ogunbawale is merely one star in Notre Dame’s galaxy. Senior forward Jessica Shepard adds 18.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, junior guard Jackie Young 18.3 points, senior forward Brianna Turner 14.0.

“We know Jess. We respect her. She’s physical,” Bluder said. “Turner ... that girl can jump.”

The Hawkeyes (4-1) might be catching Notre Dame at an optimal time. The Irish host No. 2 Connecticut on Sunday, and could be looking ahead to another chapter in their long rivalry with the Huskies.

“That might be something that could be to our advantage,” Bluder said.

Iowa is coming off its first loss of the season, to Florida State. That was one day after the Hawkeyes rallied from a 24-point deficit to edge then-No. 20 West Virginia.

“We proved that we’re very resilient. We were down 24 and made an epic comeback,” Davis said. “But we have to do a better job of limiting turnovers than we did against Florida State. We have to get down and play defense for the full 40 (minutes), especially against a team like Notre Dame.”

Gustafson leads the Hawkeyes at 23.2 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. She needs 26 rebounds to surpass Cindy Haugejorde as Iowa’s all-time career leader.

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Bluder said Wednesday that guard Kathleen Doyle remains unavailable to return from a broken left hand.

“She had X-rays this week, and maybe it didn’t heal as much as we’d like,” Bluder said.

In the final day before their biggest test of the season, the Hawkeyes were respectful to the Irish, but not awe-stricken.

“They’re a really good team, well balanced. But we can run with them,” Gustafson said.

Added Davis: “If we win, it will shake up women’s basketball. And that’s something we want to do. If not, we’ll come back with our heads held high.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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