Elite teams overcome adversity. They weather the runs of their opposition and come away just as strong as they were before. They build throughout the year in time to peak and make a deep run in March. Today, Iowa proved it’s an elite team by beating North Carolina State 79-61 to advance to the program’s first Elite 8 since 1993.
Iowa’s Sweet 16 match-up against North Carolina State was supposed to be a neutral site contest against two of the Top 10 teams in the nation. The only catch is that neutral in this case meant Greensboro, North Carolina, less than 90 miles from the North Carolina State campus. To advance to the Elite 8, Iowa would need to beat a very good team in what would essentially be a road game.
Iowa began that effort well, particularly on the defensive end. The Hawks contested every shot around the basket, closed out well to shooters, and played with high energy on every possession. The result was NC State only scoring 11 first quarter points. Offensively, Iowa struggled to get Gustafson the ball early, but the other starters stepped up. The guards nailed a couple early three-pointers, and Hannah Stewart made some baskets with the extra space she had. The result was 16 first quarter points, and a 5-point Iowa lead after one.
Somehow, the second quarter went even better. Gustafson started to get going offensively, and her teammates continued to play well. NC State’s star freshman center (Elissa Cunane) got into foul trouble, and the Wolfpack offense continued to struggle to find open looks. Iowa’s lead got as high as 14 in the quarter, and they finished up 13 at the break.
In the third quarter, it was finally NC State’s turn to get going. The Wolfpack started attacking the basket, both in half-court sets and in transition. And, for the first time all game, they were getting good looks that went down. Iowa, meanwhile, struggled to get the ball inside, and their three-pointers weren’t dropping. The Wolfpack used the momentum to close within five points by the mid-quarter TV timeout.
At that point, the pressure was squarely on Iowa. The Wolfpack had momentum after being down big. They had the home crowd behind them. And they had seemingly unlocked Iowa’s defense and found a way to shut the Hawks down defensively at the same time.
Elite teams aren’t elite because they’re only good at one thing, though. Elite teams don’t get hit in the mouth, then fall to the mat and give up. They keep on fighting, making adjustments until they find something that works. And Iowa is an elite team.
In the final few minutes of the third quarter, Iowa went on a run of its own. Alexis Sevillian, Iowa’s first guard off the bench, started the run with a huge three—Iowa’s first in a very long time. Then Gustafson made a couple big plays, either scoring or assisting teammates on buckets once she was swarmed. The Hawks used that run to take a 12-point lead into the 4th quarter.
Before the fourth quarter began, it felt like one last NC State run was coming. The Wolfpack are a very good team. They played in a difficult conference with two of the very best teams in the nation. Surely they wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Sadly for them, they never got a chance. Iowa’s offense was clicking on all cylinders to start the fourth quarter. Gustafson and Stewart were scoring inside. The guards were hitting threes. And Iowa’s defense was doing just enough. The Iowa lead quickly grew to 16. Then to 20. Iowa held on from there, and finished off a 79-61 victory.
Gustafson led Iowa with 27 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 assists on 10-14 shooting and 7-7 from the free throw line. She tied the NCAA Division I record for double-doubles in a season (33) with the performance. Stewart also had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Tania Davis was the last Hawkeye in double-figures with 10, though Makenzie Meyer and Kathleen Doyle were close behind with 9 apiece. A box score from the game is here.
This was Iowa’s best all-around performance of the season. The Hawks’ defense was very good for a majority of the game, and the offense was good for all but a part of the third quarter. NC State didn’t have a lot of answers offensively, and they struggled on defense, because every Hawkeye on the floor hit a big shot if they didn’t receive adequate attention. Elite teams peak during tournament time, and Iowa has done just that. The Hawks have played their best games of the year when they’ve mattered most.
Iowa’s Elite 8 game will take place at 6 PM CT on Monday, April 1st against the winner of #4 seed South Carolina and #1 seed Baylor (who play later today).
South Carolina is 23-9 on the season, and finished 2nd in the SEC. The Gamecocks have beaten Florida State and Purdue teams that beat Iowa this year, but also lost to Maryland by 24, and to Drake by five.
Baylor is the much more likely opponent, given that the Bears are the #1 overall seed in the tournament. They are 33-1 on the season, with their only loss to 2-seed Stanford in a close contest. Iowa State played them fairly close for most of the game a couple times this season, though, giving Iowa a possible recipe for success.
Iowa also has the benefit of the pressure being off. Before the season, the Hawks wanted to win the Big Ten and make the Elite 8. Check and check. Anything from here is just another chapter in a fairy tale season. Because of that, the Hawks can play aggressive and take the action to Baylor. And if the game stays close, it could be advantage Hawkeyes. Baylor hasn’t played a ton of close games this season, particularly since conference play started. Iowa has been in dogfights all year long.
But for now, we're just gonna keep moving our feet: