IOWA CITY, Ia. — Mother Nature took its best shot Sunday afternoon, peppering Iowa City with another wintry mess. But the curtains remained pulled back at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa women’s basketball supporters weren’t missing this.
The Hawkeyes gave them a show.
"I was expecting a great turnout," senior Tania Davis said. "Our coaches were talking about it. We were talking about it, promoting it. I was expecting a great turnout, and I'm so thankful that all those people decided to come."
With No. 8 Maryland in town and first place on the line, Iowa sent a loud message to a national television audience. The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes remained unbeaten at home with a 86-73 win in front of a season-high 10,716.
A back-and-forth affair saw Iowa (21-5, 12-3 Big Ten Conference) land the final punch. Although quiet early, with just two first-quarter points, Megan Gustafson carried the Hawkeyes when it mattered most. The all-American finished with 31 points, 24 of which came in the second half.
"You've just got to keep working and keep wearing them down," said Gustafson who had Maryland in all kinds of foul trouble down the stretch. "That's what I try to do, especially when maybe I'm not hitting all my shots in the first half. Second half, I was able to hit some shots."
Iowa owned a 58-50 lead entering the final period before closing things down in winning time. Maryland began the quarter on a 9-0 run, but the Hawkeyes stabilized things on Gustafson's shoulders. Her layup with 4:08 to go gave Iowa a 70-63 lead.
Although Maryland (23-3, 12-3) remained within striking distance from there, Iowa countered every time it needed to.
Alexis Sevillan drained a huge three in the final two minutes. Hannah Stewart was clutch when Gustafson was covered. And Iowa, buoyed by Gustafson’s dominance down-low, had plenty of free-throw opportunities.
The Hawkeyes went 27-for-29 at the line.
"It shows our resiliency," Gustafson said. "No matter who we're facing or what kind of situation we're in, we're able to really pick it up — whether that's scoring the ball or getting defensive stops. I was really proud of our defensive intensity. It was something we worked on all week long. Our rebounding was great, especially in that second half. That's what we really needed.
"It's going to help us in March when we're having those tough games. We're going to know we can do it as long as we stick together."
Davis (13 points), Stewart (12) and Kathleen Doyle (12) all joined Gustafson in double figures as Iowa won for the 10th time in 11 games. The supporting cast held down the fort until No. 10 arrived.
"We have so much confidence within each other," Davis said. "I have so much confidence in Kathleen or Makenzie to knock down threes. I know as soon as we started knocking down threes or using Megan in our pick-and-roll game, that leaves driving lanes for us.
"As guards, I feel like we do a great job of reading the defense and taking what the defense gives us. In the first half, we know everyone is going to come after Megan. But in the second half, teams have to pick and choose what they are going to give up."
The Hawkeyes finish up with a fairly reasonable schedule, traveling to Indiana and Nebraska before hosting Northwestern. Iowa is now in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten title — and possibly even more.
"We've got three games left. We've got a lot of work still to do," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said, "and we're going to get refocused.
"But I'm sure going to let them enjoy this one for about, oh, 24 hours."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.