By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
IOWA CITY — You need to have connections to get tickets for the NCAA women’s tournament this weekend at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The signs on the door to the arena’s lobby where Iowa’s ticket office is located, the ones warning any prospective customer that there are no tickets available, have been worn by the weather this week. They’ve been up since Monday morning, when the last of the 14,000-plus tickets were sold.
So, yeah, you have to know someone to get through those doors for Friday’s first-round games and Sunday’s second-round game.
“I mean, my sister called and told me, ‘I’m not going to get tickets, it’s sold out,’” said Georgia coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. “I’m like, “Are you OK? Your sister is the head coach at Georgia. You’ll be getting tickets. You’ll be fine.’”
The 12:30 p.m. game between seventh seed Florida State and Abrahamson-Henderson’s 10th seeded Bulldogs is just the undercard for what the fans are really coming for on Friday. At 3 p.m., it’s No. 2 seed Iowa and No. 15 Southeastern Louisiana.
It’s rock stars vs. the new kids — the Big Ten Tournament champion and 26-win Hawkeyes with Final Four dreams vs. the Lady Lions in their first NCAA tournament.
Southeastern Louisiana players came to Thursday’s press conference in hoodies with the slogan, “SLU VS. EVERYBODY,” and that’s how it’s going to feel.
Fine, said coach Ayla Guzzardo.
“They are ready for the challenge,” she said. “They are not necessarily star-struck. They want to compete and they want to defend and that’s what they do on a daily basis. So it’s just another day for us.”
Of course, it’s not really another day, and Guzzardo said that while the Lady Lions have seen the Power 5 atmospheres of LSU, Alabama and Utah this season, this will be a bigger stage.
“Luckily for us,” she said, “we have a veteran group.”
The Hawkeyes have basked in the heat of the lights all season. All-American guard Caitlin Clark repeated the motto of the season when she said, “Pressure is a privilege.”
And they’re used to sellout crowds that can turn Carver-Hawkeye into a sweaty hothouse for even the best teams.
“I think it just shows the excitement in our community about women’s basketball and that’s the excitement that it could be like that all around the country,” Clark said. “And it should be like that because there are a lot of amazing women’s basketball teams at the college and pro level.
“But one of the reasons I came here is the support for this team and this program that (Iowa coach Lisa) Bluder has built here is unreal. So you never take for granted getting to run out on to a court with 15,000 people screaming for you. And we need to use that to our advantage.”
“It’s not that I expect it,” Bluder said. “I value it, and I enjoy it, and it makes it very happy that we get the fan support that we do.”
And even away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Hawkeyes are a hot ticket. They score a lot of points — a Division I-best 87.5 points per game. And there’s the magnificence of Clark, a machine of points, rebounds and assists just waiting to churn out another triple-double.
“What has been surprising to me is when we go on the road and when I see in Maryland girls with signs, ‘I’m from Massachusetts and I came here to see you play,’ largely for Caitlin,” Bluder said. “We were at Nebraska, and someone has a sign, ‘I’m your biggest fan in North Dakota.’ People travel miles to see this team and to see Caitlin play.”
Clark’s career has been game after game of mastery, but even she still appreciates the minutes of March.
“These are the moments you dream of and that you work for all season, and they’re finally here,” she said. “It’s just exciting, but at the end of the day it’s just another basketball game. You’ve just got to go out and play and that’s what we’re going to do. We always talk about just be us. And that’s all we need to be, and the results will come with that.”
Guzzardo knows the odds facing her team are long. She wants her team to be focused walking down the tunnel and out into the cacophony of the home crowd.
But she also wants them to look around and take everything in, because it doesn’t happen often.
“We tell them to take all of this in at the moment,” Guzzardo said. “When we step foot on the floor and we’re in between those loins, we have a job to do. But they are enjoying this. They need to enjoy this.
“I got to experience this at my last school and this is something that you really, really need to take in. It’s a lot of logistical stuff that the coaches have to deal with but as far as the players, they are just enjoying it. A lot of them have been reaching for this goal since they stepped foot on campus, and I’m so happy they can achieve it together with this group.”
Any seat in the house will be a good one on Friday, if you can get inside.
Abrahamson-Henderson had a message for her sister.
“You’re going to get tickets, babe,” she said with a smile and wink.
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark answers questions during Thursday’s NCAA Tournament media availability. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)