IOWA CITY — Monika Czinano is an appreciative person.
Ask her five things she appreciates and she’ll rattle them off in a flash.
“Every team I’ve had the pleasure of being on, the coaching staff, all of our wins and losses, the friends, the ability to play in a Division I locker room,” Iowa’s five-year forward said.
Would an additional item be playing in the NCAA tournament and, for the third time in her collegiate career, in the comfort of Carver-Hawkeye Arena?
“Oh yeah,” she stated. “It is the standard Iowa sets.”
Czinano and the rest of the second-ranked and seeded 26-6 Hawkeyes women’s basketball team are taking a comforted, but edgy, approach to Friday’s NCAA tournament opener versus 15th-seeded Southeastern Louisiana.
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Tip is slated for 3 p.m., or 30 minutes after seventh-seeded Florida State and 10th-seeded Georgia wrap up their first-round contest.
“Having this opportunity to have two more home games is something I’ll never overlook,” Czinano said. “It is really special. I’m one of the few seniors who get to do that.”
For the majority of her time donning the black and gold, Czinano has felt the atmosphere behind Iowa’s fans and supporters.
Only the cancelation of the 2020 NCAA tournament and 2021 in the bubble were the two times the Watertown, Minn., native didn’t play the first two rounds in Iowa City.
She has yet to experience a first-round setback.
“It is a season of lasts, but if I get too caught up in that, I’ll miss what is actually happening right in front of me,” Czinano said. “It is because I know how good this team is, which is why I decided to stay.”
Within an hour of the tickets being sold online, the Hawkeyes announced a sellout for the first two rounds of games.
That didn’t surprise star guard Caitlin Clark.
“These are the moments you dream of and that you work for all season and they’re finally here,” she said. “It is exciting, but at the end of the day, it is just another basketball game.”
Iowa is used to playing in front of packed crowds, whether it is at home or on the road or at the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis.
Its opponent, Southeastern Louisiana, is not accustomed to 14,000-plus environments.
The Lions’ average crowd — in 30 games at home, on the road or at a neutral site — is 781 spectators.
“We have been focusing on talking loud,” SE Louisiana guard Hailey Giratono said.
It is a contest of two contrasting styles.
Iowa is notorious for being an up-tempo offensive unit, buoyed by its NCAA-leading 87.5 points per game. It has been on display in triumphant regular-season victories over Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers, Wisconsin and Indiana over a three-week stretch.
That has been heightened with an 89-point showing versus the Terrapins in the Big Ten Tournament semis and a 105-point outburst in the title showdown with Ohio State.
“We just want to come out and play Iowa basketball,” Clark said. “I think the most important thing for us is we don’t have to change anything now that we’re in the NCAA tournament.”
Southeastern Louisiana is 15th in the country in defensive scoring, allowing teams to score 54.5 points per game and holding opponents well below their average.
The Lions limited Southeastern Conference foes LSU and Alabama to 63 and 55 points, respectively. They identify as a “blue collar” unit.
“If you ask anybody in our league, that’s who we are,” SE Louisiana coach Ayla Guzzardo said. “They know we’re not going to just roll over.”
Even as NCAA tournament rookies, the Lions aren’t shying away from trying to play spoiler
Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1994, No. 15 seeds are 0-112 against No. 2 seeds.
“Defensively, we are a great team,” Lions freshman Jalencia Pierre said. “I know they are a fast team, but we can really slow them down.”
Iowa was on the end of a nail-biting opener four years ago.
It had to engineer a comeback against Mercer and collectively exhale after escaping with a 66-61 win. Of the current roster assembled, only Czinano and Kate Martin were part of that 2019 squad.
“Take no one for granted,” Martin said. “Anybody who gets into the NCAA tournament, you have nothing to lose. Anyone who steps into Carver wants to have their best game.”
After winning a conference regular season and postseason tournament for the second year in a row, the Hawkeyes aren’t looking back on last season’s stunning exit to Creighton in the second round.
With a week off, coach Lisa Bluder feels they’re eager to take the court in a competitive setting once again.
“I see more of an excitement than tightness,” Bluder said. “We’re enjoying the experience.”
And Iowa’s core group of veterans understand nothing will come easy in its quest to the Final Four, where television analysts and others have written its name down in Dallas.
“Pressure is a privilege and people are wanting to beat the University of Iowa,” Clark said. “You can go ask probably 100 more people and who knows how many are going to pick us. Going game-by-game is super important.”