IOWA CITY, Ia. — Maybe it was something obvious, say Carver-Hawkeye Arena’s relentless near-capacity crowd or Iowa’s late aggressive play. Or perhaps it was something less tangible — the basketball gods refusing to sour such an important day.
Whatever the case, Iowa was going to find a way.
It would’ve made for an odd fit considering the order of events. With Megan Gustafson’s jersey retirement ceremony set for after Sunday’s affair, the Hawkeyes had to avoid their first home loss in nearly two calendar years. A struggling Michigan State squad seemed like a perfect foe to cooperate. The Spartans were anything but. No. 21 Iowa didn’t find comfortable breathing room until the waning minutes.
Final reading: Hawkeyes 74, Michigan State 57.
No worries, on to the festivities.
"We just wanted it so badly," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "We wanted to get this win and certainly do it for Megan. She was in our circle this morning and at our shootaround, and so that was important to us. When the game gets going, you just wanted to win."
This wasn’t supposed to be so difficult. Iowa (17-3, 8-1 Big Ten Conference) entered as double-digit favorites, seemingly catching Michigan State (11-9, 4-5) at the right time for a riveting rout. Everything was in place for a stress-free afternoon full of excitement.
Instead, one wave of adversity after another tried to ruin Iowa’s perfect day. Monika Czinano exited with a right-ankle injury after twisting it hard shortly after halftime. She never returned and spent the rest of the day in a boot, although Bluder did say postgame nothing is broken.
Michigan State, meanwhile, zapped the Hawkeyes’ third-quarter cushion and made it a back-and-forth game in the fourth. Surely this one wasn't going to end in despair, right?
"We talked about it going into the fourth quarter," Bluder said. "We've been in this situation before and pulled it out."
But Iowa did what it does in winning time at CHA as it made this one look easier than it was. Iowa ended the game on a 21-4 surge, transforming a 53-53 deadlock into a runaway win over the last five minutes. Freshman McKenna Warnock buoyed the run with 15 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter, including eight over the Hawkeyes' final six possessions.
As Gustafson roared with excitement just a few feet from the action, Warnock took over in a way she hasn't all year. Her career-high scoring output was more than Warnock had in Iowa's last three games combined. It was a needed effort with Czinano sidelined.
During this eight-game winning streak, Iowa has outscored its opponents by a combined 70 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
"I had a couple plays called for me, and everyone just told me to take it at them," Warnock said. "The support from everyone (was huge)."
With the win and Northwestern’s loss to Maryland, Iowa sits alone atop the Big Ten a month into conference play. The home winning streak continues with no strange postgame feel. The most decorated player in program history watched on like a proud parent, encouraging and celebrating her former teammates as often as Gustafson could.
Iowa wasn't losing on this day.
"It was great just seeing their fight," Gustafson said. "They fought so hard, especially after Monika went down. They needed someone to step up, and McKenna did a great job stepping up. And the whole team did too. They did a great job coming together and rallied.
"They are just doing so well. They're shattering everyone's expectations. The culture and the chemistry is the same from last year, and that's why they're doing so well. I'm so proud of them."
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.