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So close.

Despite trailing Ball State by as many as 16 points in the third quarter, the Iowa women's basketball team stormed back — but not all the way back.

The Hawkeyes (19-14) narrowed the deficit to two points twice within the final two minutes of the game, but Ball State (22-9) won 77-72 in a Women's National Invitation Tournament first-round game Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

Ball State never trailed in the contest, shooting 42.9 percent from the field and propelled by a strong second quarter. Iowa shot 42.6 percent, ultimately unable to recover from an 0-for-6 start from 3-point range.

"(Ball State) took control of this game early and kept it," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "... Unfortunately, the second quarter got away from us. That's really the story here. We had too many turnovers, they shot more free throws, they outrebounded us. They took it at us in almost every facet of the game."

Freshman center Megan Gustafson paced the Hawkeyes with 22 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Junior guard Ally Disterhoft added 19 points, sophomore guard Whitney Jennings scored 13 points and freshman guard Tania Davis scored 12. Three players posted double figures for Ball State, led by 24 points from senior guard Nathalie Fontaine.

The second quarter belonged to the Cardinals as they outscored the Hawkeyes 22-12 to take a 40-28 lead into halftime. That deficit proved too large to overcome.

"I don’t think we respected Ball State enough," Bluder said. "Maybe they didn’t watch enough film to know that this was a good basketball team — a very good basketball team. They’re fundamentally sound, good inside player, great power forward, savvy point guard. I’m not sure that mentally they really knew how good Ball State was. We were worried about this game as coaches. We thought this would be a real challenge tonight."

Thursday marked the first WNIT appearance for Bluder's program since 2005 following a prolific eight-straight NCAA Tournament berths.

In 2014-15, the Hawkeyes put together one of their best campaigns in school history, advancing to the Sweet 16, recording 26 total wins and going 18-0 at Carver.

One year later? A 19-14 record, failing to get past the first round of the WNIT. Quite a reversal.

"'We’re extremely disappointed," Disterhoft said. "There were some ups during the season, but for the most part, this isn’t something we’ll look back on very fondly. We’re going to need to turn it around this offseason. We have good recruits coming in, and we have talent on this team. We didn’t show that (talent) this year. There’s no reason why we can’t work hard this offseason, bond with those incoming freshman and come out and be one of the top teams in the Big Ten next year."

Iowa never found a rhythm this season, compiling three-plus game win streaks only three times and losing seven of its last 11.

The Hawkeyes return their entire starting five in 2016-17, a reason for optimism — or a reason for a sense of urgency after a quick exit this time around.

"It’s hard to see this season come to an end, but it’s been a tough year, it's been a frustrating year," Bluder said. "We have to get recommitted to what made us great to begin with. We need to really dig deep and find that emotion and that passion for the game and then put in that work to be great again."

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