SEATTLE -- One month ago, the Iowa Hawkeyes were left reeling after dropping their penultimate regular-season contest to the Maryland Terrapins by a whopping 28 points on the road, a game that center Monika Czinano called "embarrassing."
But that experience ended up being the turning point Iowa used to refocus and come out stronger, helping the Hawkeyes win back-to-back Big Ten tournaments and, most critically, advance to a second Sweet 16 of the women's NCAA tournament in three years.
"I think that loss kind of stung a bit," national player of the year candidate Caitlin Clark told reporters Thursday, a day before the No. 2 seed Hawkeyes face the No. 6 seed Colorado Buffaloes in the semifinals of the Seattle 4 regional. "We understood a lot of people are going to go back and watch that film and have a blueprint of how to beat Iowa. We knew we needed to change some things to be able to not let teams guard us like that."
"It sure gave us a focus," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "It just felt so bad that we didn't want to feel that way again for a long, long time, hopefully... It was more just putting, the old cliche, the nose to the grindstone."
The turnaround since that loss at College Park -- including a six-game win streak -- has been stark: The next outing, the Hawkeyes took down the then-No. 2 Indiana Hoosiers, who had entered that game with only one loss, off a Clark buzzer-beater in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd. Iowa then avenged its earlier loss by beating the Terps in the Big Ten tournament semifinals and later crushing the Ohio State Buckeyes by 33 to win the tourney title.
The Hawkeyes advanced to Seattle by taking down SE Louisiana and escaping Georgia in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at Iowa City. The win over the Bulldogs ensured they wouldn't suffer a shocking first-weekend exit as they did in the second round last year, when they were upset by Creighton at home.
"I believe our season could have gone one of two ways when we played Indiana at home," Clark said. "We weren't playing for a Big Ten regular-season title anymore, but the game still meant the same to us, we won on a buzzer-beating shot but we felt like we played a dominating game against them the whole time. I think we've been able to ride that momentum throughout the Big Ten tournament, the first two games of the NCAA tournament, and we're bringing that here too."
Clark (26.8 PPG) and Czinano (17.5 PPG) make up one of the highest-scoring duos in the country with Clark alone capable of going off for a triple-double or 30-point outburst any night. But the Hawkeyes learned from the Maryland loss that those two can't be the only ones to contribute offensively should Iowa seek to return to its first Final Four since 1993 under then-coach C. Vivian Stringer.
Senior Gabbie Marshall's sharpshooting in March has given Iowa a perimeter threat that's made defenses pay if they focus too much on slowing Clark and Czinano. Marshall has hit 58% of 3-pointers (19-for-33) in March -- including 5-for-8 in the second round against Georgia -- versus 32% beforehand.
"We knew that we had to step up and we had to knock down shots," Marshall said. "They were focusing on Monika and Caitlin, and the supporting cast had to step up. So I think we've done a great job at it, and Monika and Caitlin are great at finding us and giving us the confidence to knock down the shots when we're open."
Helping bolster their supporting cast Friday will be Hannah Stuelke and Molly Davis. Stuelke missed the Georgia game after turning her ankle in practice and Davis played only 1 minute, 45 seconds after sustaining an injury. Bluder said that they are "close to a 100 percent as you can be this time of year."
"[We've shown] you can't just take two players out of the game and beat us," Clark said. "I think Gabbie [Marshall] and McKenna [Warnock], Kate [Martin], even our bench players Hannah, Sydney [Affolter], Molly, I think they have all stepped up in big ways and I think we all understand too that if we want to win two games here, we're going to need everybody. It can't just be a couple people. It's got to be all five players on the floor at one time. Whether that shows up in the box score or not, you need to be dialed in and do your role."
Still, the Hawkeyes' strength comes from their starting five -- Clark, Czinano, Marshall, Martin and Warnock -- and specifically the familiarity they've built over the past three years. That quintet has started 88 games together, by far the most of any starting five in Division I since 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Marshall, Martin and Clark will be the Hawkeyes' returning starters next season, while Czinano will be out of eligibility and Warnock plans to start dental school.
That chemistry also paid dividends off the court, allowing the team to rebound from the Maryland loss and use it as a jumping-off point for its recent elevated play.
"It brought us a little bit closer together, for some reason," Bluder said. "Our chemistry is something that we really believe in. We absolutely believe that our chemistry is one of the parts of our success, and I think it even brought us even tighter."
With a win over the Buffaloes Friday, Iowa would face the winner of No. 5 seed Louisville and No. 8 seed Ole Miss Sunday for a spot in the Final Four. The Hawkeyes last advanced to the Elite Eight in 2019, led by then-star player Megan Gustafson.