'Peaking at the right time': Iowa buries North Carolina State to reach first Elite Eight in 26 years

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Iowa’s entire team hollered with jubilation at Greensboro Coliseum’s center court, arms locked and smiles beaming as they soaked in this special moment.

The Hawkeyes trotted into North Carolina with confidence and poise. They’ll stay a little longer after a riveting Sweet Sixteen showing.

Iowa jumped on North Carolina State early, withstood a Wolfpack push, then slammed the door shut with an emphatic final surge. Blend those ingredients together and you get Saturday’s 79-61 win, clinching the Hawkeyes' first Elite Eight appearance since 1993.

"I really believe this team is peaking at the right time, and it's so good to see us going in that up direction at the end of March and now into April," junior Makenzie Meyer said. "We really did put a full game together, especially in that second half."   

A pro-North Carolina State crowd had few opportunities to make a difference. An early lockdown clinic and plenty of contributions from the Hawkeyes’ supporting cast had Iowa in control from the jump. Its first-half lead ballooned to as much as 14 — more than enough cushion throughout.

Against a Wolfpack squad that fires at will, Iowa's defensive gameplan couldn't have been sharper. North Carolina State finished 22 percent from deep (4-for-18), its third-worst 3-point percentage this season. 

Kathleen Doyle hounded leading scorer Kiara Leslie, limiting her to just four points and one field goal in the first half. Leslie ended with a team-high 16 points, but it was much too late by the time she got going.

"I just did my best to make (Leslie) shoot tough pull-ups," Doyle said. "I was able to get my hands on a few balls, which just throws you off and gets you out of rhythm. That's big going in to start the game. Our whole team did a good job of attacking those loose balls."      

North Carolina State made one push, slicing a 37-24 halftime deficit down to five with 4:43 remaining in the third. Those in red roared with approval as Lisa Bluder asked for a timeout.

The Hawkeyes weren’t having it.

A 20-8 run, buoyed by two crucial Alexis Sevillian treys, erased any chance of a meltdown.

Iowa's Megan Gustafson, top left, embraces teammates Hannah Stewart and Tania Davis during the second half of a regional women's college basketball game against North Carolina State in the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

"Literally everyone in the (timeout) huddle was very, very calm," senior Tania Davis said. "I didn't feel any type of (tension), whether it was from the coaching staff or the players. No one was really tense. Everyone went into that huddle with a very positive attitude, knowing that basketball is a game of runs.

"They had their run and we tried to limit it after that timeout, which we did. Then we went on our run. So credit to coach Bluder and the coaching staff for being level-headed and keeping us grounded (in that timeout) and believing in us in that moment."  

Megan Gustafson poured in a game-high 27 points, with most of the action coming in the second half. She had only three field goals at the break, yet Iowa remained in control thanks to timely buckets from its external pieces.

Outside of Gustafson, five other Hawkeyes scored in the first half. Iowa's all-American eventually got her chances, wearing down Wolfpack freshman Elissa Cunane as the game went on. Gustafson had 16 points in the second half. Hannah Stewart added 16 as Iowa owned the paint production.         

"N.C. State has some great post players," Gustafson said, "but I think experience won out." 

Iowa now gets a chance to prove its among college basketball’s elite. It'll get No. 1 overall seed Baylor at 6 p.m. (CT) Monday with a Final Four berth on the line — a place the Hawkeyes have only been once in program history.

The Bears, which routed South Carolina in the other Greensboro semifinal, will give Iowa the toughest 40 minutes it's played all year. Confidence, though, is running high for with the Hawkeyes after putting on another postseason show.

"You always want to take your program as high as you can and make it as good as you can," Bluder said, "and this was a step for us. We had not as a coaching staff been to an Elite Eight. So it was really important to us, and it was really important to our players." 

 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.