What we learned from the Hawkeyes' 80-76 win over Penn State
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It started as a walk in the park for those in gold. It ended with plenty of stress.
All Iowa could do was hold on.
It did, barely, despite nearly blowing an 18-point advantage. Penn State hit the Hawkeyes with a late forceful surge and had Carver-Hawkeye Arena sweating as the final minutes dwindled away. But Iowa managed to stay one basket ahead and never surrendered the lead, pushing through for an 80-76 win on Thursday night in front of a sparse crowd.
After back-to-back wins a week ago, Iowa (19-6, 7-5 Big Ten Conference) has won three straight for the first time since winning seven in a row in December. Although Thursday’s showdown ended with a sputter, the Hawkeyes continue to take care of business against the Big Ten bottom feeders as March nears.
But, yes, the drama.
Iowa owned a 58-40 advantage with 5:04 to play in the third quarter, then went scoreless for nearly five minutes as Penn State climbed back in. The Nittany Lions whittled the deficit to single digits for good with 4:57 to go. It was a two-point separation with a minute to go.
Iowa, though, leaned on its horse. Megan Gustafson hit two key free throws with 50 seconds to play, then sealed the deal with one final driving layup. The junior standout finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds. Chase Coley delivered a career-high 24 points and missed just two shots.
“Continuing to try to work as hard as we can on defense and take care of the ball on offense — we obviously had lapses on both of those,” Coley said, “but I thought we did a really good job at staying together.”
Coley and Gustafson led down-low the charge, but Iowa received quality minutes from Hannah Stewart as well. She had eight points, including six in the first quarter that helped push the Hawkeyes out to an early 20-7 lead.
Iowa finished with a 44-26 paint advantage and relentlessly leaned on its bigs to engineer its 18-point advantage. Gustafson finished with a season-high seven assists, many of which went to Coley.
“Tonight,” Gustafson said, “I was able to go baseline — that was something we emphasized in practice beforehand. So to just be able to see where they’re coming from — and again, being able to find the open teammate — we practiced that pass over to the other post every single day in practice.”
About that sputtering finish
The bow appeared to be tied on a productive evening, but Penn State ripped it off and nearly stunned Iowa in its own building. The 19-6 Nittany Lion surge closed out the third quarter and spilled into the fourth, as Teniya Page (23 points) and Amari Carter (16 points) both continued firing.
The Hawkeyes seemingly had their skid corrected with around six minutes to play, as Coley and Gustafson guided the Hawkeyes back to double-digit ground.
Twelve-point cushion, at home.
Page came fighting back, scoring eight consecutive points to bring Penn State within two, 75-73, as the clock crept under three minutes. The Nittany Lions have been repeatedly blown out on the road this season. It wasn’t happening again Thursday.
But give Iowa credit for not crumbling.
“I think we went away with what was working for us,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said when asked what changed down the stretch. “If something’s working, why stop doing it? And so in the third quarter, I don’t think we got the ball into (the posts’) hands enough.
“… But when these guys are playing so well and have that much of an advantage inside, you’ve got to use it.”
Grinding it out
It may sound like coach speak, but Bluder’s continuous talk about the importance of every game in the season’s final stretch proved true Thursday. A home loss to a team below .500 in the Big Ten would’ve been crippling as the Hawkeyes look to surge into March, given that the margin between a No. 6 seed and a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament could come down to just one or two performances.
The finish wasn’t great — but Iowa survived. That’s all you need on some nights.
“That’s something we’ve focused on all year is grit,” Coley said. “It’s kind of like just staying together at the end of the game, no matter how ugly it is.
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.