Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder talks about Iowa’s chance at a late push following Sunday’s big win over Minnesota Dargan Southard/Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — On its up-and-down run through conference play, Iowa hadn’t experienced an unblemished week in more than a month. Sunday provided an opportunity to smooth out the ride.
The Hawkeyes delivered.
Following Thursday’s tough overtime win over Michigan State, Iowa made it back-to-back wins for the first time since late December. The Hawkeyes leaned on a scorching first half and held on late en route to a 92-84 win over Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes (18-6, 6-5 Big Ten Conference) hadn’t been over .500 in league play since Jan. 13, but Sunday’s win gives Iowa another jolt as it looks for one final push heading into March. Michigan State and Minnesota both entered the week as NCAA Tournament bubble teams, and Iowa came away with two impressive victories.
"We talked about a week ago about the significance of every game, how important it is," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "Not only for the Big Ten standings, but for the NCAA Tournament. I think this was a significant win for us."
Sunday, though, wasn’t without a dose of late drama. Despite sporting a 48-33 halftime lead and an 83-70 advantage with 1 minute, 58 seconds to play, the Hawkeyes let Minnesota squirm back in down the stretch. Over the final 35 seconds, the Gophers twice pulled within four and had Iowa sweating just a bit. Kenisha Bell (35 points) refused to back away.
But the Hawkeyes hit enough free throws and celebrated at midcourt.
"I really like the team basketball," Bluder said. "We have five people in double figures. We have 20 assists on 29 baskets. Again, team basketball is so good for us."
Here's what we learned:
It was a quiet start by her standards — she had five first-half points while battling foul trouble — but Gustafson cranked it up in the third quarter to eclipse history. A layup late in third gave the junior standout her 49th career double-double, breaking the program record for both men's and women’s basketball. Gustafson finished with 25 points and 15 boards.
It’s been a magical season for Gustafson, who has thundered onto the national scene. Only twice in 24 games this year has Gustafson not produced a double-double, continuing to climb as the season’s worn on.
Sunday’s performance was impressive in its own right. Gustafson drained just one first-half field goal and picked up her third foul early in the second half, then took over the quarter. She scored 12 of Iowa’s 20 third-quarter points and cruised to the double-double.
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"I didn't even know until the past couple days that I was even close to some sort of record," Gustafson said. "Again, I just have to thank my teammates. They're the reason I'm able to do what I'm doing on the court. They're setting me up for great passes, and I try to do my best to get rebounds because I know that's really important to get extra possessions for our team.
"So at the end of the day, I have to thank my team."
Early downtown action
Bluder couldn’t have mapped out a better start if she tried, as Iowa’s 3-point shooting instantly resurfaced. Makenzie Meyer, who just recently shed the protective brace on her left hand, drained two quick threes and had the Hawkeyes surging early, 13-2. Iowa hit three treys in the first 3 minutes and finished 6-for-13 from deep in the first half.
"It's always nice when you get the first one or two to drop," Meyer said. "Obviously, I struggled at Michigan State, so once I was kind of able to break that barrier on the lid, it boosted my confidence.
"(The brace) was annoying. I don't know how much it really altered my shot, but it was frustrating at times — I just wanted to take it off. So it feels really good to have it off."
Aside from a decent outing versus Ohio State, Meyer had been struggling since her return from a fractured hand that cost her six games. The sophomore guard entered shooting 22 percent from deep (5-for-23) in her four games back, but she kept rolling after Sunday’s initial spark, hitting four threes en route to 16 points.
Sevillian woke up as well with two quick treys early in the second quarter, ending with 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting. The redshirt freshman had been in a deep funk, too, as Sunday’s effort marked just her second double-figure game in Big Ten play.
Confidence, though, can quickly resurface when even a couple fall.
Hardly home but always reppin'
Barring a Big Ten Tournament matchup, Sunday's showdown marked Chase Coley's final matchup against her hometown squad. The Minneapolis native finished 3-3 versus the Gophers and ended on a high note, pouring in 17 points and seven boards in 32 minutes.
"It's always fun to play against those girls because I've known so many of them for so long and played with some of them," Coley said. "So it's fun to get that last win, especially here on our home court."
Coley held down the fort early as Gustafson warmed up, scoring a team-high 12 points in the first half on 4-for-6 shooting. Her mid-range jumper has morphed into a deadly weapon that can carry Iowa at any point.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.