IOWA CITY, Ia. — A Hawkeye-heavy crowd of 10,000-plus tried its best to drown out the nervous energy. But it was there, and it was real. This was not the drama Iowa wanted.
No. 15 seeds were winless in 100 tries entering Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener, yet Mercer and its small but spirited cheering section threw punch after punch inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes were fortunate to survive.
Despite a season-high in turnovers and an overall disjointed performance, Iowa held on for a 66-61 win over the Bears. The Hawkeyes (27-6) advance to the second round and will get Missouri on Sunday.
"It's the NCAA Tournament — everyone's fighting for their season," senior Tania Davis said. "Last five minutes, it pretty much comes down to executing and who wants it more, especially in those types of situations. We tried to use the crowd to our advantage.
"But hats off to Mercer. They were winning a lot of hustle plays. We were kind of lackadaisical with the ball. But I feel like those last five minutes, we kicked it into gear."
The absurd surfaces when the March lights flip on, but this nearly defied all logic. Iowa was a nearly 30-point favorite against a Bears program making just its second NCAA Tournament appearance since moving to Division I.
Mercer (25-8) remained locked on Iowa’s hip all afternoon, refusing to fade away until the final minute. The Bears had a 51-50 lead after three quarters and were up two after Keke Calloway’s trey with 4:19 remaining.
A team with no business hanging close suddenly had belief. That’s a dangerous recipe this time of year.
"March Madness is called March Madness for a reason," junior Kathleen Doyle said. "Any team in this tournament has earned their way into this tournament. They're going to fight for their lives out on that court. Mercer did that today."
Iowa managed to avoid disaster. It held the Bears to one field goal over the last four minutes, and Hannah Stewart poured in six pivotal points down the stretch.
Davis missed two free throws with Iowa up 64-61 and 15 seconds remaining. But Megan Gustafson hit the deck and helped force a jump ball. The Hawkeyes kept possession. Doyle was fouled and sank two free throws to ice it.
Then, a collective breath.
"I think there might have been a little jitters," Gustafson said. "We have to get through that first game in order to keep playing, so honestly, it feels really good to get the win no matter how ugly."
Gustafson was her usual self, pouring in 30 points and 16 rebounds with only two missed field goals. Makenzie Meyer added 16 on 5-for-7 from deep. Iowa led by as many as 11 in the first half and appeared ready to surge ahead after halftime.
Twenty-four turnovers kept Mercer within reach. The Bears owned the third quarter and spilled momentum into the closing stretch.
"I feel like the whole entire game, we were playing a little bit heightened, a little tense in a sense. But those last five minutes, we definitely played intense instead of tense," Davis said. "We just came together as a team and played for each other like we usually do. We locked down defensively and came together knowing our season is on line."
Iowa survived in its first action since winning the Big Ten Tournament on March 10. But that’s about all it did. In March, that's good enough.
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.