Tonight was Iowa’s biggest game of the season to date. #14 Rutgers entered with a perfect 7-0 record in the Big Ten conference. Iowa, meanwhile, came in at 5-2, with their two losses on the road to upper-half conference opponents (Michigan State and Purdue). A win would move Iowa into second place in the conference standings, one game behind Rutgers. A loss would put them three games back, with Rutgers owning the tiebreaker between the teams, having won their only match-up of the season.
The game was also a contrast in styles. Rutgers is known this year primarily for their defense. They rarely allow teams to score above 70 points thanks to their athleticism, physicality, and rebounding. Iowa, meanwhile, likes to push the tempo. They often score at least 70 points per game, thanks to a great passing offense, and having the nation’s leading scorer starting at center.
Early on, Iowa’s tempo won out. The Hawkeyes got Rutgers into a track meet, as both teams pushed the ball and shot over 50%. The Hawkeyes were aided by a fast start from Megan Gustafson, who scored the team’s first 11 points. Rutgers matched her production shot for shot, though, and the game was tied at 21 at the end of the first quarter.
The tempo slowed down somewhat in the second and third quarter. Iowa’s shooting cooled off some, but they still managed to find Gustafson plenty, and Kathleen Doyle emerged as a second scoring option. Rutgers, meanwhile, couldn’t buy baskets on shots beyond a few feet, but were boosted by strong offensive rebounding. Iowa took a narrow 35-33 lead into halftime, and led 53-48 after three quarters.
The fourth quarter was back and forth. Iowa’s lead got as high as eight in the quarter, though Rutgers cut that down to one several times, including in the game’s final two minutes. The ending was particularly tense because, just as Rutgers made their final run, Iowa started to have trouble at the free throw line. The Hawkeye defense came away with several huge stops, though, and finally their free throws began to fall. Eventually Iowa closed out an important 72-66 home victory over the top team in the conference to date.
Gustafson led Iowa with 32 points on 13-16 shooting. She added 12 rebounds. Doyle added 17 points of her own, including two big three pointers. Makenzie Meyer was the last Hawkeye in double figures, with 11 points. She didn’t shoot well from three in the game (1-4), but hit 4 clutch free throws in the game’s final minute. Per the BTN Plus commentator, she hasn’t missed a free throw all season. A full box score is here.
This game was remarkably consistent in how back and forth it was. Iowa’s lead was never higher than eight, and I don’t think Rutgers led at all in the second half. Often, they were close, but they could never get over the hump.
In such a close game, there are a ton of things that could have shifted things to a different result. That being said, it’s pretty easy to say the biggest difference in this one is that Iowa had #10 starting at center. Gustafson blitzed the Rutgers defense early, helping Iowa get off to a fast start. In the middle of the game, she drew numerous fouls that got several different Rutgers players into foul trouble. Then, at the end of the game, when Iowa needed a basket to maintain their lead, Gustafson was there to get a quality shot or rebound and finish a miss. She was the best player on the floor, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Though Gustafson had a big game, Iowa’s role players also stepped up late. Meyer had a fairly bad shooting night, and has struggled with her shooting for much of the season. When the Hawkeyes needed key free throws late, though, she nailed every single one. Hannah Stewart had perhaps her worst game of the season. She scored only four points and was in foul trouble much of the night. But when Iowa needed a basket up one with just under a minute and a half to go, she drove to the hoop and made a tough layup over a defender. She then got a huge block with a half minute to go and Iowa up only three. Though Gustafson’s contributions will be more evident in the box score, without Iowa’s role players stepping up, they wouldn’t have won this one.
Around the Big Ten
Iowa’s victory makes the Big Ten standings look a whole lot more favorable:
1) 7-1 #14 Rutgers
2) 6-2 #17 Iowa
3) 5-2 #11 Maryland
3) 5-2 Purdue
Better yet, Iowa still has home games remaining against Maryland and Purdue, but don’t have to face either of them, or Rutgers, on the road going forward. If Iowa takes care of business at home, and assuming Rutgers drops at least one more conference game, the Hawks will be sitting well in the conference race.
Iowa doesn’t have to wait long for another big game. Purdue comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, January 27. The game starts at 2 PM CT, and will be broadcast again on BTN Plus. Iowa will look to avenge a 62-57 road loss to Purdue earlier this season and keep pace in the conference title race.
It’s another game Iowa really needs to win. If they lose, they’ll be behind Purdue by a game in the conference standings, but will have also lost to them twice on the year. They would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Purdue, then, but would also be severely hampered in the event of a tiebreaker with three or more teams if Purdue were one of those other teams.