Lisa Bluder: 'We made this harder than it had to be' Dargan Southard, firstname.lastname@example.org
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Flow was hard to find in a vintage Big Ten grind. But the Hawkeyes eventually slogged through the muck.
The style and flash Iowa usually rolls with wasn’t there Thursday night, but a veteran unit finally wore down Nebraska in the second half despite some late turbulence. The No. 20 Hawkeyes emerged with a 77-71 win in their conference home opener. It’s a victory Iowa (9-3, 1-1 Big Ten) needed after Sunday’s dud.
"There just wasn't a lot of flow to the game at times," Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said. "Too many turnovers by both teams. Too many fouls by both teams. So it wasn't the prettiest game, but again, we're not caring about that right now."
Back at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first time in almost three weeks, the Hawkeyes collided with a Nebraska squad fresh off five wins in its last six. Confidence bubbled after a 2-5 sputter.
Iowa felt that Husker push. It was a down-low grind for Megan Gustafson even more than usual. Kathleen Doyle didn’t get grooving until the second half. Turnovers piled up early as they tend to do for the Hawkeyes. The final stretch was anything but smooth.
A 69-57 Iowa lead with 4:36 to go seemingly had things wrapped up, but turnovers, missed free throws and one last visitor push let Nebraska (7-7, 2-1) wiggle back in. The Huskers climbed within four with 1:20 to go, then two with 25 seconds remaining.
Two big offensive rebounds from Hannah Stewart on missed free throws kept disaster away. Iowa finally put Thursday’s grind away at the line late.
"I just did what we're supposed to do on free throws — cut across the lane and try to get the rebound," Stewart said. "I don't think Nebraska expected us to miss our free throws, not that I did. But I just did my job and tried to go get that o-board. Coach Bluder has been challenging me to get more rebounds."
A third-quarter surge, buoyed by Gustafson toughness and a solid stretch of defensive toughness finally generated some separation. Iowa ended the quarter on a 20-6 run, turning a four-point deficit into a 10-point advantage.
On a night where Gustafson was honored pregame (again) for recently breaking the program’s career scoring and rebounding records, Iowa’s all-American sifted through constant post traffic en route to another big night.
Gustafson finished with 28 points, none bigger than back-to-back layups to end the third quarter. An emphatic fist pump and yell followed both. A first half that had seven missed shots was in the rearview mirror.
"My game mentally has to be really ready to go no matter what, especially in the Big Ten," Gustafson said. "I've got a big target on my back right now. I've just got to be ready for that night after night."
Iowa also got 14 points from Stewart and 11 from Tania Davis and Doyle, as the veteran quartet trio helped push the Hawkeyes to a bumpy but important victory.
Style points matter little throughout the conference grind.
"I think in those tight situations, that experience pays off being in that situation before," Bluder said. "But I do like how nobody panicked. We were frustrated at times with ourselves, but I thought we did a good job of pitching it and moving on to the next thing."
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.