Mission focus: Emphatic finish propels Hawkeyes past Missouri, into Sweet Sixteen

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The raucous support Iowa had at its back Sunday was more than four months in the making. A season’s worth of emphatic wins, riveting performances and consistent dominance earned the Hawkeyes a chance to put on an NCAA Tournament show.

A packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena experienced an enthralling grand finale.

After a bumpy start to the weekend, Iowa locked in and rolled like the veteran team it’s proven to be. The No. 2 seed Hawkeyes toppled Missouri, 68-52, advancing to the program’s first Sweet Sixteen since 2015. They’ll face the winner between Kentucky and North Carolina State next Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina.

"We had a lot of confidence that we were going to have a better game this time around," said senior Megan Gustafson, who poured in another casual double-double (24 points, 19 rebounds). "Thankfully, it happened.

"The trust that we have in each other is amazing. We're not all about each other — nobody is in this. Whenever someone is getting frustrated, we just think of mission focus — that's the words we've been going to every single time. 'Unbreakable' has been our mantra all year long. We're just working for each other at the end of the day."

The Hawkeyes (28-6) lived their best life in Iowa City, finishing 17-0 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena this year. It’s just the sixth time in program history Iowa has gone undefeated at home. All six teams have now at least made the tournament’s second weekend.

The buzz began Saturday and spilled into Sunday that this crowd could be an electric one. Only 2,500 tickets remained some four hours before tipoff. The final attendance — a season-high 12,376 — goes down as one of the best in Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeye tenure.

Iowa City ended with the highest attendance of all the first- and second-round sites. Missouri, which had only played in front of 12,000 people once this year, looked rattled late as Iowa surged ahead.

"There was so much energy in the arena today, and we loved it," Bluder said. "Our three seniors deserved it. The whole team deserved it. But I'm just so thrilled that Hawkeye Nation got behind this team. Number one in the nation in attendance on Friday, then the turnaround today and just to do it again.

"Our fans are amazing, and we're so thankful for them. They just created a tremendous home court for us. We are very thankful for that."

Iowa supporters had plenty to roar about as the Hawkeyes clamped down hard in the fourth quarter. Unable to shake No. 15 seed Mercer until Friday’s final minute, Iowa finished much more effectively this time around.

A 19-2 second-half run flipped a tied game into a comfortable rout. Knotted 39-39 with 5:57 to go in the third quarter, Iowa owned a 19-point lead before the midway point of the fourth.

Bluder's zone defense had the Tigers (24-11) flustered in winning time. Iowa held Missouri to just three field goals during one 13-minute second-half stretch.

The defensive effort on Sophie Cunningham was flawless, as well. Missouri’s standout senior couldn't find a rhythm all afternoon, ending with just eight points on 3-for-11 shooting.

"Our main goal was to try to limit her touches and make her take tough shots," senior Tania Davis said. "We did a great job of that. Once they took those tough shots, we did a great job of pursuing the ball. When her teammates had the ball, we just moved hard. If we got beat off the dribble, our rotation was amazing and always there. Once Sophie had the ball, I feel like we stayed disciplined."

Iowa Hawkeyes players celebrate after a NCAA women's basketball tournament second-round game, Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa defeated Missouri, 68-52.

The Hawkeyes’ guard play was spectacular, too, as Makenzie Meyer and Kathleen Doyle delivered bucket after bucket around Gustafson. Meyer finished with 18 on four treys. Doyle added 15. 

"Every game I play, I just try to focus on that game — I don't look in the past; I don't want to look in the future," said Meyer, who's averaging 13 points per gamer in postseason play. "So I've just been playing in the moment and have been put in really great positions."

Iowa claimed its opening-round sputter was just an unfortunate start. It backed that up Sunday with authority.

The journey continues in a special season. 

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