The opening round of the NCAA Tournament is always a nervy time for teams. There’s no room for error now. One bad game, and your season might be done. It’s no surprise, then, that some teams come out tight. Players start forcing passes. They start taking bad shots. Then the game starts poorly, and the nerves get worse. Everything starts to spiral.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened to Iowa today. Despite shooting well from the floor and playing decent defense, Iowa could never pull away from 15 seed Mercer. The reason was simple: turnovers. Iowa had 8 of them in the first quarter, 14 by halftime, and 24 for the game. And those turnovers almost cost the Hawks a storybook NCAA Tournament run before it even began -- and threatened to give Iowa some unwanted history. Since the women's NCAA Tournament had expanded to 64 teams, no 2-seed had lost in the first round, but Iowa's struggles in this game put that mark in jeopardy.
The warning signs for Iowa were there from the very beginning. Mercer started the game by shooting 2-16 from the floor, and had only 4 points with 1:38 left in the first quarter. But despite that, Iowa’s lead never grew higher than 10. The Hawks were shooting well from the field, Megan Gustafson looked nearly unstoppable, yet they couldn’t put the game away because they kept throwing the ball away. Mercer used a late quarter run to narrow the gap to 4 heading into the second quarter.
For a few moments in the second quarter, it looked like Iowa had things figured out. Makenzie Meyer hit a couple big threes, and Iowa drew their lead back to double digits at 30-19. But then Mercer went on another scoring run, thanks to some hot shooting and more Iowa turnovers. It cut Iowa’s lead down to 5 near the end of the quarter, before another Meyer three sent Iowa to the break up 8.
Halftime seemed like the time Iowa would turn things around. The Hawks have had bad quarters this year. They’ve had bad halves, even. But they usually rally at the half.
Today, even halftime couldn’t fix Iowa’s funk. Instead of storming out of the break, Iowa struggled with turnovers again in the third quarter. And their lead slowly narrowed. First it was down to three. Then one. And, just before the buzzer of the third quarter, there was no lead at all. Mercer hit a close shot with a second remaining to take a 51-50 lead into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter was a battle, and for far too long it looked like one Iowa would lose. Mercer extended its lead to four early in the fourth quarter, and for several minutes Iowa couldn’t score. Then, mercifully, the real Iowa finally showed up. Gustafson hit a couple of shots to tie the game with just under 5 minutes to play. The teams battled back and forth from there until Hannah Stewart hit a couple big shots with under three minutes left to extend Iowa’s lead to three. The lead stayed at three until the closing seconds, when Kathleen Doyle hit a couple free throws to ice the game away. Iowa had survived Mercer’s opening round upset bid. Barely.
Gustafson led Iowa with 30 points and 16 rebounds on 14-16 shooting. She was 9-9 at halftime, but Iowa struggled to find her in the second half. Meyer added 16 points on 5-7 shooting from three. She’s starting to lock in from deep recently, and that’s some good news moving forward. Hannah Stewart was Iowa’s last double-digit scorer with 12, several of those coming at a crucial time late in the game. A box score for the game is here.
What made Iowa’s turnovers particularly hard to stomach was that they were mostly within Iowa’s control. Mercer wasn’t pressing. They weren’t jumping passing lanes. Instead they were tipping bad or telegraphed Iowa passes. Or they were collapsing down on a player dribbling into a bad spot and stealing the ball away. Worse yet, Iowa continued to make those same mistakes nearly the entire game. It took until the fourth quarter for the Hawks to stop throwing the ball away.
Despite the turnovers and the anxiety of the game, there were actually some positives for Iowa. First, it played fairly good defense today. Mercer scored almost nothing at the basket, and shot only 23.8% from three. Most of its damage came in the form of long two-point jump shots. Though Mercer hit them at a decent clip, those are shots that Iowa will be willing to give up all tournament.
Iowa also shot fairly well when they actually got shots up. Gustafson was spectacular once she got the ball in her hands. Mercer didn’t have anyone who could stop her. Meyer’s three-point shooting was also a difference maker, and she looks to have built up some confidence in her shot.
Iowa will play the winner of #7 seed Missouri and #10 seed Drake at an as of yet undisclosed time on Sunday, March 24 at Carver Hawkeye Arena. I believe the game will be on ESPN2 like the first-round game.
Iowa has already played Drake this year, and came away with a 91-82 victory on the road in Des Moines. Gustafson was particularly great in that game, scoring 44 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Drake was ranked for much of the year, and were probably under-seeded by the selection committee, in part because it lost in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Missouri finished the year 23-10 overall, good enough for 5th in the SEC. The teams have played three common opponents: Michigan, Illinois, and West Virginia. The Tigers lost to Michigan by 16 at a neutral site, but won handily at West Virginia and Illinois. Iowa swept Illinois, beat West Virginia narrowly at a neutral site, and went 1-1 against Michigan. I don’t think that combination of results tells us a whole lot. Iowa is the favorite against either opponent, but if they turn the ball over 24 times again, they’ll be headed home. Hopefully the Hawks forget all about Mercer and return to playing like the team we’ve seen all season.