Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes heading toward high expectations after gritty season

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

LOS ANGELES — Even as the tears flowed inside a dense locker room, many of the Hawkeyes could peer through the sadness and look ahead.

The view is quite nice.

Although Saturday’s result — a 76-70 loss to Creighton in the NCAA Tournament’s first round — stuck a sour ending on a solid campaign, Iowa’s ability to fight through adversity and return to the Big Dance has momentum flowing into what should be an even stronger year next season.

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Lisa Bluder talks with her team before practice Friday, March 16, 2018 at Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA.

“We definitely gained a lot of great experience to come back next year,” sophomore Kathleen Doyle said. “We all want to be back here next year and, obviously, go further than the first round. We’ll all be really hungry and motivated all season long, so it’ll be fun.”

All but two Hawkeyes will be back next season, including four current starters and sidelined starter Tania Davis (torn ACL). Iowa must replace its “glue” in senior forward Chase Coley, but Lisa Bluder will still have a wealth of weapons at her disposal — all of them now with high-stakes postseason experience.

It took a determined unit to bring Iowa back there. From losing three players in the offseason to the devastation of Davis’ second ACL tear in less than a year, the Hawkeyes’ season could have ventured way off the rails.

Iowa didn’t let it happen. From the opening tip, it surged through the nonconference portion of its schedule with a 12-1 showing and didn’t let up, come Big Ten Conference play. Forced to adjust without Davis and later Makenzie Meyer for a six-game stretch, Bluder’s squad fought through its tough early league slate and turned it on when the schedule eased up.

The end result was Iowa’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in three years. After back-to-back seasons of NIT disappointment, the Hawkeyes made a point early on to avoid a third. There was no Selection Monday sweat this year.

The season’s obvious headliner was the rapid rise of Megan Gustafson, who climbed among college basketball’s elite with a dynamic junior campaign. She led the nation in scoring, finished top-5 in rebounding and stands as the primary reason why Iowa will be highly regarded heading into 2019.

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.

Pivotal developments exist elsewhere as well. Iowa’s trio of young guards — redshirt freshman Alexis Sevillian and sophomores Doyle and Meyer — proved capable of shouldering extensive responsibility.

That unit sputtered Saturday, but all three gained valuable experience in their first Big Dance run. Weaving a healthy Davis back into that group will be a huge boost as well, given how thin Iowa was at guard once she went down. The 5-foot-3 senior-to-be should enter her final year determined and motivated for a strong ending.

Forward Hannah Stewart, who had 10 points off the bench in Saturday’s loss, will join Davis and Gustafson in that senior group. Stewart will likely slide into Coley starting spot.

All those ingredients combined, it’s easy to see why Bluder was optimistic even amid defeat.

“I’m really proud of them,” the Iowa coach said after the Creighton loss. “They fought through this year, but next year, we’re going to have more weapons. We’ll have a deeper team, a healthier team, hopefully, with Tania next year all the way through.

“We return some really good players. Megan, I think, is one of the best posts in America, and she’s coming back for her senior year. I think Hannah (Stewart) showed (Saturday) what she’s capable of doing. We have four recruits coming in, so I think the future looks bright for our team. I wish they would’ve had a better experience here for them to go into next year, but certainly, they know they’re good enough to compete at this level. We’ll keep growing and getting better.”

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.

Two areas needing growth are turnovers and reliability around Gustafson. The Hawkeyes averaged 16.2 turnovers per game, which ranked 12th in the Big Ten and 211th of 349 Division-I teams.

Gustafson also averaged more points in losses than wins and had some her most dominant outings in defeat. That falls on Iowa’s guard play, which will need more consistency over long stretches of the season.

The Hawkeyes will also add four signees: 6-foot-1 forward Logan Cook, 6-foot-3 forward Monika Czinano, 6-foot guard Kate Martin and 5-foot-9 guard Tomi Taiwo. Iowa doesn’t need any of them to turn into a freshman sensation overnight, but depth is always imperative.

"We're going to be really excited to make a run,” Gustafson said. “We are young, and I think just having this experience in the NCAA is huge, especially when you’re a player. This is our first time, and we definitely want to come get back next year to make some noise."

Iowa will be picked to do just that. Next year’s unit will have to handle lofty expectations and should get everyone’s best shot. But if the 2019 campaign ends up favorably, many inside the Iowa program will flip back to this year as the first step.

“Our team mantra is grit,” Doyle said. “I think we had that all season long.”

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.