Road games in the Big Ten are always tough, regardless of the opponent. Iowa need only look to its road game against Illinois last year to prove that point. In that game, the Hawkeyes lost 70-65 against an Illini team that won only 3 conference games. This year, fortunately, Iowa didn’t suffer the same fate. Despite being down by as many as nine, and the game being close for most of the way, Iowa prevailed 84-71 to notch their second conference road victory.
Early in the game, whether Iowa would prevail was very much in question. Illinois started hot from the field and took a 23-16 lead into the second quarter. Iowa’s primary problem was defense. They mostly switched between man to man and a matchup zone defense, and early on it resulted in Illinois getting a lot of open looks that they converted. Iowa also wasn’t shooting well from the floor when they got open shots.
Early in the second, Illinois’ lead got up to 9, and an upset looked possible. Iowa needed a spark—they got it in the form of their best player proving why she’s one of the nation’s best. Megan Gustafson spurred Iowa’s second quarter comeback effort, scoring 13 points in the quarter and doing well on the glass to secure defensive stops for the Hawkeyes. Iowa used her big performance to take a 38-33 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The third quarter was back and forth. Iowa got the lead up to 8 multiple times, but Illinois continued to score to keep the Hawkeyes’ lead within reach. Iowa’s lead was 5 in the waning seconds of the third when Alexis Sevillian got open and nailed a 3 to close the quarter.
The fourth quarter was much like the third. The Illini stayed close, and the crowd started getting into it. The turning point came at the 3:30 mark. Illinois had hit a couple threes in a row, and the Iowa lead was down to 3. The Hawkeyes needed another spark, so they turned to Gustafson. She delivered. Gustafson hit a tough layup underneath and also drew the 5th personal foul on Illinois’ Ali Andrews—the player who had hit the Ilini’s last two threes. Gustafson then converted the free throw. In one possession, she doubled Iowa’s lead—from 3 to 6—and also fouled out one of Illinois’ top players. Illinois managed to cut the lead to 4 on the next possession, but that’s as close as the game got.
Gustafson led Iowa with 34 points and 12 rebounds. She shot 10-10 from the free throw line. It’s the third time in four conference games that she’s made 10 or more free throws without missing one. Alexis Sevillian also had a big game, scoring 21 points on 5-8 shooting from three-point range. Kathleen Doyle was Iowa’s other double digit scorer; she had 15 points and added 10 assists for her second consecutive double-double. Even more impressive, she did so without committing a turnover.
Illinois was led by Alex Wittinger, who had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Though Gustafson’s numbers are extraordinary, Wittinger also had a strong game in the post, and was easily Illinois’ biggest scoring threat. Notably, she was on the bench in foul trouble for much of Iowa’s big second quarter run. Ali Andrews was Illinois’ only other double-digit scorer with 13 points on 3-4 shooting from three. Full game stats are here.
Against Maryland, Iowa committed 23 turnovers that took away any chance they had of an upset. Today, they had only seven turnovers, which is a big improvement. Obviously Illinois—now 9-9—isn’t on the same level as Maryland, but the improvement was easy to see. Iowa looked less rushed in their offense today, and were a lot better at not forcing passes. They also faced pressure from Illinois on a few possessions and handled it well.
With Tania Davis and Makenzie Meyer out, Iowa now relies primarily on Gustafson, Sevillian, and Doyle to provide much of their offense. Today, that trio played excellently, scoring 70 of Iowa’s 84 points. Between them, they had only two turnovers.
Iowa continues to shoot well from the free throw line, going 20-22 against Illinois. Gustafson, Sevillian, and Doyle combined to shoot 18-18 from the line.
Finally, walk-on true freshman Zion Sanders seems to be getting more comfortable on the floor. She doesn’t play much—only six minutes of against the Ilini—but is needed to give Sevillian and Doyle a break. If she continues to show she belongs on the floor, it’ll go a long way in helping Iowa’s guards be fresh for the stretch run of games.
Iowa’s defense tonight wasn’t great. For much of the season, they’ve deployed primarily in a 2-3 zone that is good at taking away post scoring. Tonight, though, they primarily rotated between man to man and a matchup zone defense. The result was Illinois getting a lot of close looks at the basket. The Ilini took advantage, shooting 42.6% from the floor.
To be fair, Illinois was also shooting well from the 3-point line. They shot 44.4% from 3-point range, though for much of the game that number was above 50%. While a 2-3 zone is good at limiting penetration and points in the paint, it often surrenders a lot of open looks from deep. Coach Bluder might have opted to play less zone in order to keep defenders close on Illinois’ 3-point shooters.
Iowa also wasn’t great at rebounding today. They usually have a rebounding advantage against their opponents, but were outrebounded in this one 34-31. Illinois also won the battle on the offensive glass 14-7.
Iowa now gets a little break, as they don’t return to action until Saturday (1/13) at home against Purdue. The game starts at 3 PM CT and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Purdue is 10-7 overall and 1-2 in conference play.