Coming into the 2017-2018 season, Iowa faced plenty of questions. They had just lost the program’s leading scorer in Ally Disterhoft and needed to replace her production. They also had a concerning lack of depth, with 11 players on the roster and only 7 with significant Division I experience. Despite those concerns, Iowa’s starting lineup looked strong. If they fared okay on the injury front and had a player or two step up, a return to the NCAA Tournament seemed well within their grasp.
A Hot Start
The Hawkeyes started their non-conference season well with seven consecutive victories. In that span they won the Hawkeye Challenge and the Puerto Rico Classico. They also defeated three teams that made the NCAA Tournament this season in Western Kentucky, Quinnipiac, and Elon.
Iowa then played #13 Florida State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Despite holding a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter, Iowa ultimately lost a heartbreaker to the Seminoles. Still, they proved that they were worthy of a spot in the Top 25 and that they could compete with one of the best teams in the nation.
Iowa finished the non-conference with five more victories. In the process, they proved that this is, in fact, a Hawkeye state by sweeping in-state opponents Iowa State, Northern Iowa, and Drake.
Iowa’s strong starting lineup was a big reason for their early success. Megan Gustafson looked even better that she did the previous year when she was selected first team all-conference in the Big Ten. She was supported by a trio of guards who were all threats to shoot from deep in Tania Davis, Makenzie Meyer, and Kathleen Doyle. The Hawks also got good production out of their bench, as Hannah Stewart did well at either the 4 or 5 and Alexis Sevillian proved to be a dangerous scoring threat in her redshirt freshman season.
The non-conference news wasn’t all good, however. In the Northern Iowa game, Davis went down with an ACL tear for the second consecutive season. To make matters worse, Makenzie Meyer broke a bone in her hand in practice just days later. On the eve of Big Ten play, Iowa had lost two of its starting guards, and its depth concerns were very much a reality.
Injuries Take Their Toll
Despite injury issues and the depth problems that resulted, Iowa started Big Ten play with a victory at Wisconsin and a big win at home over then-#21 Michigan. At that point, the Hawks were 14-1 and were very much in contention for a Top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The strong start didn’t last. The Hawkeyes lost four of their next five games, with the only win coming over Illinois, a team that didn’t win a game in the Big Ten this year. During that span, the biggest issue was guard play. Doyle and Sevillian were essentially asked to play the entire game due to the injuries to Davis and Meyer and their performances suffered because of it. Gustafson had some huge performances to try and compensate—including 37 points and 14 rebounds against Purdue—but it wasn’t enough.
Coming off that poor stretch, a matchup with #12 Ohio State didn’t seem particularly likely to give Iowa a boost. Meyer was finally back from her injury, but she hadn’t returned to her pre-injury form, and Iowa hadn’t played well in a month. Fortunately, basketball is a very strange sport. Iowa led the Ohio State from start to finish on their way to a 103-89 Buckeye beatdown. Doyle and Meyer combined for 43 points in the game, and Gustafson was great like usual with 29.
The struggles weren’t over, however, as Iowa immediately dropped their next game at home against Nebraska by 18. The Cornhusker lead got as high as 34 in the third quarter.
The Strong End
At 16-6 with seven games remaining in the season, Iowa was hovering around the 10/11 seed range in NCAA Tournament projections. A strong run to end the year would give the Hawks a good chance at being the favorite to win their opening tournament game. A poor run might’ve seen them miss the tournament all together.
Luckily for Iowa, the former occurred. The Hawks ran off seven consecutive victories to end the season, and defeated Northwestern in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. There were several big moments in that stretch, but an overtime victory over Michigan State to start the run might have been the biggest.
In that game, Iowa was down by two in the waning seconds when Gustafson drew a foul and hit two big free throws to send things to overtime. The Hawks again found themselves down—this time by one—in the waning seconds of the extra period. Again Iowa responded, as senior Chase Coley hit a jumper in the short corner with just seven seconds left to give Iowa a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The run also featured a stunning come-from-behind victory over Rutgers. With three minutes remaining, Iowa was down nine and had scored only 36 points in the previous 32 minutes. Their win probability in that moment was a meager 1.4%. Despite the odds, Iowa rallied to force overtime, thanks in large part to a Doyle 3-pointer that tied the game with under 10 seconds left. They then dominated overtime and ultimately won by 10.
In their quarterfinal Big Ten Tournament matchup with Minnesota, Megan Gustafson had a game for the ages. She scored 48 points—a program and Big Ten Tournament record—on 19-26 shooting while adding 15 rebounds. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Gustafson didn’t get much help from the players around her, and Iowa dropped a tough one, 90-89.
Iowa’s strong regular season earned them a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a matchup with #11 seed Creighton. Unfortunately, Iowa never got going in that game and couldn’t slow down Creighton from 3-point range. They trailed most of the game, and ultimately lost 76-70.
Iowa finished the year 24-8 overall, and 11-5 in the Big Ten, good enough to tie for 3rd. They also earned a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Overall, the team exceeded expectations this year, and did so while suffering crucial injuries to Davis and Meyer. Had those injuries not occurred, Iowa would’ve had a great chance to earn a top 4 NCAA Tournament seed, and likely would’ve made a run at the conference championship.