Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes learn lesson on the perils of March

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

LOS ANGELES — The margin for error inevitably tightens when the calendar flips to March, creating a different basketball aura that’s impossible to replicate. You can speak it, preach it, hammer it home all you want — but lessons are learned through experience. That season-ending pain goes a lot further than a speech or practice drill.

The bulk of the Iowa women’s basketball team felt that sting for the first time Saturday night. Of the current Hawkeyes, all but two had never played in the NCAA Tournament. It was a mixed bag of debuts.

The final scene was a locker room filled with demoralization and agony, a result of Iowa’s 76-70 season-ending loss to Creighton inside UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

“Nobody likes feeling like this,” sophomore Kathleen Doyle said.

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Makenzie Meyer (3) drives to the hoop against the Creighton Bluejays in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018 at Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA.

The difference between a flight home and second-round preparation is slim. And in a game that was tantalizingly within reach the whole way, Iowa never reached out and grabbed control.

Megan Gustafson showed no stage fright in her first Big Dance, capping an emphatic junior season with her 28th double-double (29 points, 17 rebounds) this year. But it was always going to take more than Iowa’s all-American for the Hawkeyes to advance in this tournament, and Saturday’s backup was largely a no-show.

Under the L.A. lights, Iowa’s guard play needed to be sharp. It’s a fledgling unit — two sophomores and a redshirt freshman start — but the shorthanded guard group had shown plenty of successful flashes this season. A barrage of treys surrounding Gustafson’s reliability makes the Hawkeyes a dangerous squad.

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Makenzie Meyer (3) battles for a loose ball against the Creighton Bluejays Myah Mellman (2) in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018 at Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA.

But the guards sputtered. Creighton cranked up the defensive pressure and never let anyone get loose from beyond the arc, holding Iowa to 3-for-12 from deep. The Hawkeyes’ starting trio of Alexis Sevillian, Makenzie Meyer and Doyle combined for just 20 points on 5-for-22 shooting.

That won’t fly in March.

“Absolutely, we needed more people than Megan to carry the offensive load,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I thought Hannah Stewart came in and did a really nice job for us, but it’s too bad that Makenzie got into foul trouble. She’s really our best 3-point shooter, and when she picked up some foul trouble — and then fouled out ultimately — not a good thing for us.

“They weren’t really sagging off of her. They were sagging off of everybody else, but we just weren’t able to make them pay for that.”

Even with all the Gustafson hype, Jim Flanery knew containing Iowa’s guard play was just as pivotal.

The Creighton coach noted in Friday’s press conference that some of Gustafson’s most dominant performances this season came in losses — 34 points against Florida State, 37 versus Purdue and most recently, a program-record 48 against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. The Bluejays were going to lose the interior battle, but locking down the perimeter could still lead to a win.

That’s just what Creighton did.

Hawkeyes forward Megan Gustafson (10) goes to the hoop against the Creighton Bluejays in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018 at Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA.

"We had studied enough, just looking through box scores and kind of figuring out when (Iowa’s guards) struggled," Flanery said. "So our focus to some degree was to take 3s away from Sevillian and Meyer. Doyle doesn’t shoot as many — she can make 3s — but she’s probably a little more drive than shot.

“But we didn’t want Meyer and Sevillian to get 3s, and I thought we did a good job on those guys.”

In executing that defensive strategy, the Bluejays made one big change from when they scrimmaged Iowa in October. Flanery said he put Sydney Lamberty on Doyle during the preseason matchup, but went with Jaylyn Agnew this time around at an assistant coach’s suggestion.

The flip-flop worked to perfection. Doyle finished a tough day 3-for-15 from the field, including 2-for-8 from 3-point range. She was second on the team behind Gustafson with 11 points, but never got in an offensive rhythm as Creighton eventually pulled away. 

“Jaylyn is just a little longer,” Flanery said, “and I thought she did a good job of spacing off of Doyle — but also making things difficult when she put the ball on the floor.”

Still, Iowa had late opportunities. The Hawkeyes rarely trailed by more than six points in the second half and were seemingly one push away from ending the night in jubilation.

But that’s how March goes.

With every pivotal piece back next season outside of Chase Coley, the Hawkeyes should be dancing again in 2019. They’ll be a year stronger, a year wiser when it comes to postseason perils, and will look to build off what was a quality 24-8 campaign.

For now, the pain lingers.

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.