For two and a half quarters, Iowa was in complete control of its semifinal matchup with Rutgers. The Hawkeyes got out to an early 16-4 lead, and maintained a 5-point lead at the end of the quarter. In the second, Iowa extended their lead, getting good look after good look in transition. That combined with solid defense helped Iowa take a 37-23 lead into halftime.
Iowa’s momentum continued into the third quarter, and by the middle portion of the period, the Hawkeyes' lead was 20. The Hawks were rolling on both ends of the floor, and looked like they would ease their way into the Big Ten Tournament final.
Then, the wheels fell off. And they fell off hard.
Rutgers went on a run in the late third quarter, and narrowed Iowa’s lead to 13. In the fourth quarter, that Rutgers run continued. The Scarlet Knights kept eating away at Iowa’s lead, and Iowa either turned it over or missed baskets on offense. Soon Iowa’s lead was under double digits. Then it was down to 5. Finally, with just over four minutes to play, the lead was only 3.
Last night, when Iowa needed big plays it was Kathleen Doyle who answered the call. Tonight was Tania Davis’ turn. Davis found Gustafson with a nice lob pass over a fronting post to finally stop Rutgers’ run. Then she answered another Rutgers basket with a three-pointer that extended Iowa’s lead to 6. Rutgers answered back, but that was cancelled out by another Davis assist, this time to Hannah Stewart.
The game’s final minute or two wasn’t particularly pretty, but Iowa did just enough to walk away with a 72-67 victory.
Megan Gustafson led Iowa with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks. It wasn’t her best game of the season by any stretch, but it was still a better final stat line than most players in the country will ever produce. Hannah Stewart added 14 points and 7 rebounds, though much of that production came in the first quarter of the game. Makenzie Meyer was the last Hawkeye in double figures with 13, including 3 three pointers. A box score for the game is here.
The answer for what happened during Iowa’s mini-collapse is twofold. First, Iowa took its foot off the gas. Rutgers pressed Iowa the entire game. Iowa built their lead by being aggressive against the press. Sometimes that led to turnovers that helped Rutgers, but more often than not, Iowa broke the press with a quick pass or two, and had numbers in transition. Iowa converted many of those chances, and looked good offensively while going fast. Once the Hawkeyes built their big lead, though, their passes came slower on the press break. That allowed Rutgers to settle in and maximize the pressure on its press, either getting a turnover or eating up 10 seconds of Iowa’s possession in the backcourt. Davis helped Iowa start being aggressive again, and that’s what finally ended the run.
The other factor was out of Iowa’s control. For much of the game, Rutgers had missed bunny after bunny around the basket. Then, just as the game looked over, Rutgers caught fire. And the Scarlet Knights caught fire by hitting shots significantly tougher than the ones they had missed earlier. Sometimes it was a contested runner or layup in the lane. Other times, it was a three-pointer from a couple feet behind the line. Iowa’s defense certainly wasn’t great to end the game, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Rutgers’ shooting made it look.
In more encouraging news, Iowa’s starters not named Megan Gustafson looked fairly good during the opening two and a half quarters. Hannah Stewart was a legitimate offensive weapon in the first quarter tonight, punishing Rutgers for giving her space by hitting a couple layups and elbow jumpers. The guards were also aggressive, and found open layups and three-pointers in transition. Iowa’s starters not named Megan will likely be what determines how far Iowa goes in the NCAA Tournament. If those starters play like they did early tonight, Iowa has a chance for a deep run. If they don’t, Iowa could easily be upset in the first couple rounds of the tournament.
NCAA Tournament Update/Next Up
Yesterday, I mentioned several teams just behind Iowa who could potentially steal a 2 seed from Iowa with a big conference tournament. That update is simpler today. Most of those team lost without significantly improving their resumes. All but one, actually—and that one team is Maryland. The Terps defeated Michigan earlier today by a single point, and will face off against Iowa tomorrow at 5 pm on ESPN2.
It’s a fitting end to the Big Ten season. Maryland and Iowa were projected as the two best teams in the conference before the season. When Iowa defeated Maryland 86-73 a few weeks ago, everyone knew it was a matchup between the two best teams in the conference. Indeed, both teams finished in the top two in the conference standings when the regular season ended. Now, the two teams get one last chance to see who’s best. On the line is a Big Ten Tournament championship and a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the Hawkeyes want to match the results from a few weeks ago, they’ll need to match their early performance against Rutgers for the entirety of the game.