Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder breaks down the Hawkeyes’ win over Ohio State. Dargan Southard/HawkCentral
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Players relished the opportunity all week. Yes, No. 14 Ohio State was daunting — but a chance to reel off an upset in front of the home crowd was just as enticing.
The No. 25 Hawkeyes surged ahead early and fought off every Ohio State punch, upending the Buckeyes, 103-89, Thursday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The win jolts momentum into an Iowa squad that had previously dropped four of five and was slowly sliding down the Big Ten Conference standings.
"That locker room was pretty fun," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "And these guys, they deserve it. They deserved to feel that way."
Ohio State entered on its own two-game skid and hadn’t dropped three straight since 2014, but the Hawkeyes (16-5, 4-4 Big Ten) bounded out to a 20-6 advantage and made it stand the entire way. The Buckeyes (16-5, 5-3) clawed back a handful of times — slicing an early second-half 14-point deficit down to two with 3:14 to play in the third quarter — but Iowa had enough juice down the stretch.
"We were just so close in our last three losses," junior Megan Gustafson said, "and I think it's important to have that belief and never doubt yourself. We have great shooters on this team, and so we just kind of took those games that we lost and just forgot about them. They're in the past, so just focusing on the next opponent in the future is what's really important."
Kathleen Doyle hit a bit of turbulence early in Big Ten play, but Iowa's sophomore guard has returned with authority. Her 25-point, 11-assist outing sparked the Hawkeyes offense all evening as Iowa shot 54 percent from the field and 53 percent from deep.
Doyle stuck the quintessential dagger in Ohio State with a buzzer-beating trey to end the third quarter, following the make with an emphatic fist pump and a stare of determination. The Iowa offense runs so much smoother when Doyle is pumping in shots and dishing out assists, and there was no better evidence of that Thursday night.
"Like Megan said, we just stayed confident in ourselves," Doyle said, "and just had to make sure that we were believing in ourselves."
This wasn’t learned Thursday — it’s been well-established — but Gustafson again displayed why she’s one of the most dominant forwards in the country. Against high-end competition, she had her way down low en route to a 29-point showing, 20 of which arrived in the first half. Iowa needed multiple surges Thursday night, but Gustafson gave the Hawkeyes an initial push with 12 points in a four-minute span as Iowa jumped ahead by 14 in the first quarter.
"I thought having a good first quarter was essential for us to kind of establish that, 'Yeah, we're here to play,'" Bluder said. "I thought it was good for us more than anything. It just showed these guys, 'Hey, we are as good as Ohio State. We're better than Ohio State.' And it just kind of set that tone early instead of having to fight back."
Forwards Stephanie Mavunga and Makayla Waterman both fouled out, in part, trying to stifle Gustafson, who again fought through repeated contact all evening. It’s not at the forefront of defenses' game plans given her overarching dominance, but Gustafson continues to make teams pay at the line when they bring extra help. Thursday was no different as she finished 11-for-14 at the charity stripe.
She put a brief scare into the home crowd late in the fourth quarter, colliding with Ohio State's Sierra Calhoun that led to both players sprawled out on the court. Gustafson was down for several minutes and picked up an impressive bloody nose, but she checked in a few minutes later and was fine postgame.
Finding a spark
There's still the final push of conference play, but Thursday’s upset temporarily halts Iowa’s mini-skid in the dog days of the season. Bluder said this week that an Ohio State win would do a lot for the Hawkeyes’ confidence and resume moving forward, and it kicks off an important week where Iowa has to capitalize on two home games.
Not a bad start.
"They continue to amaze me," Bluder said. "We had lost three in a row, and they never lost faith or belief in each other. And that's why we came out and played the way we did today. They love each other, believe in each other. They're as unselfish of a team as I've ever coached."
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.