Iowa’s Thursday night matchup with 10-14 (2-11) Illinois was the definition of a trap game. With #7 Maryland looming on Sunday, it would’ve been easy for Iowa players and coaches to be looking ahead to the bigger matchup. But overlooking even a lowly opponent is dangerous. A loss to the Illini would have significantly damaged Iowa’s conference championship hopes and their NCAA Tournament resume. Luckily, Iowa avoided the trap. Instead, they cruised to an 88-66 victory over Illinois at Carver Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa took control of the game virtually from the opening tip, as they built a 20-12 first quarter lead. Their offense went a little cold in the middle of the second quarter, before a strong finish to the half gave them a 46-34 halftime lead. The second half was much the same, Iowa hit a brief cold spell in the middle of quarter, before a late quarter surge sent them to the fourth with a commanding 67-47 lead. It was all Iowa in the fourth quarter, and the Hawks finished off their 22-point victory.
Megan Gustafson led Iowa with 27 points and 17 rebounds. She went 9-11 from the floor and the free throw line. Gustafson also broke the Big Ten women’s basketball record for double-doubles in a career with 78. She could have 10 or more games still left in her career to destroy that mark if things go well for Iowa in March.
Kathleen Doyle and Tania Davis also did well, scoring 12 points and 10 points respectively. Finally, Makenzie Meyer returned from injury with 10 points on 2-3 shooting from three. It didn’t look like the injury was slowing her down all that much. A box score for the game is here.
This wasn’t Iowa’s best game of the year. Frankly, it was probably their B-/C+ game. They weren’t as crisp as they can be on either end of the floor. But a B-/C+ game was more than enough against Illinois. Iowa controlled the entire game, and were able to get a couple freshman reserve players a decent number of minutes in Big Ten play. And that’s absolutely fine. Save the A-game for Sunday.
One good takeaway from tonight’s game is that Iowa’s guards did a good job of getting to the basket for easy layups. Too often the guards haven’t utilized that part of their game, which makes guarding them easier than it needs to be. Ultimately, I think today’s performance was more an indictment of Illinois’ defense, but I’d still like to see the guards be more aggressive in driving going forward.
Around the Big Ten
1) 12-2 #7 Maryland
2) 11-3 #14 Iowa
3) 9-4 #23 Rutgers
4) 8-6 Michigan
5) 8-6 Northwestern
And then there were two. Tonight, Rutgers suffered a terrible 20-point loss at home against Ohio State, dropping them down to four conference losses. Technically they can still win the Big Ten regular season title, but they’d need a ton of help to do so and are trending in the wrong direction (they've lost three in a row). In reality, it’s down to a two-team race between Iowa and Maryland.
The timing for the above developments is perfect, as Maryland comes to Iowa City for their only regular season match-up with the Hawks on Sunday (12 PM, ESPN2).
In simple terms, this is a de facto Big Ten conference championship game. If Iowa loses, they’ll be in the same position as Rutgers: still mathematically alive, but with no realistic path to the conference title (they would need the Terps to lose all three of their remaining games). A win, and things look a lot better. Iowa would be even in the conference with Maryland, and would hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over them. They’d only need to avoid an upset in their final three games to secure a conference title.
If you’ve ever considered going to Carver to see Gustafson and the Iowa women play, Sunday is the day to do it. Not only will you get to see the greatest player in Iowa’s history, but you might also get to see the game that secures the Hawkeyes a conference title.