Hawkeye women deliver biggest win of season, take down Rutgers

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Despite what it seems like at times, there are players besides Megan Gustafson on the Iowa women’s basketball team.

As you would expect, Gustafson demonstrated her usual dominance in the Hawkeyes’ biggest game of the season to date Wednesday night. But the assistance she got was timely and plentiful as No. 15 Iowa took down Big Ten Conference-leading Rutgers, 72-66, before a boisterous crowd of 6,035 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“Pretty happy locker room," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder reported. "That was a really good win against a good opponent."

Kathleen Doyle scored 11 of her 17 points in a first half that saw Iowa rally to a 35-33 lead after struggling to complement Gustafson early.

Tania Davis (six assists, three steals) delivered the pass of the game, her sweet back-door feed finding Doyle for a wide-open lay-in against that stingy Rutgers half-court defense pushed Iowa’s lead to 45-39 and brought the crowd to its feet.

Makenzie Meyer (11 points) splashed home a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, a breakthrough moment that extended a tight game and Iowa's lead to 56-48.

And then, with the game on the line, Hannah Stewart (four points) delivered her finest moments. First, her fearless driving bucket with 1:28 to play after Rutgers had cut the Iowa lead to 63-62. Then, with Rutgers trying to answer, Stewart stuffed the point-blank shot attempt of Arella Guirantes and retrieved the rebound.

From there, the Hawkeyes won the free-throw game and became the first opponent of No. 18 Rutgers to reach (and top) 70 points.

Oh, and about the nation’s leading scorer? Gustafson finished with 32 points and 12 rebounds — her unbelievable 73rd career double-double. She was the most dominant player on the floor.

"She’s truly the best center in the country, bar none," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "We had no answer for her. None.”

Yet she was almost too dominant early on, if that’s possible.

She scored Iowa’s first 13 points with her usual efficient style, but wasn’t getting much help until Bluder brought her to the bench with 3:15 left in the first quarter.

"I thought she needed a little break," Bluder said.

Then, the supporting cast came to life.

Bluder thought the guards needed to be more aggressive. Eventually, they were. Doyle also had six assists in her fantastic night, many of them to Gustafson.

"We kind of knew what they were going to do defensively on us," said Gustafson, who knocked in 13 of her 16 field-goal attempts. "We knew they were going to do a lot of high-side, a lot of fronting. I love when teams do that."

A few laughs ensued. 

"I just really took advantage of that," Gustafson continued, "and I've just got to credit my teammates for getting me the ball."

And now this Iowa team has firmly planted itself in the race for the Big Ten's regular-season title. The Hawkeyes (15-4, 6-2) entered in a multi-team tie for second place, but sliced Rutgers’ lead to one game in the teams’ lone meeting this season.

Stringer’s Scarlet Knights fell to 15-4, 7-1.

The Hawkeyes got it done with their usual high-percentage offense. They lead the nation in field-goal percentage and shot 24-for-48 (50 percent) from the floor against a Rutgers team that was allowing opponents to make only 33.8 percent.

Nationally, this was a big victory. These teams entered with the two highest RPIs in the Big Ten — Iowa at 12, Rutgers at 16. The Hawkeyes’ win further improves their odds of landing a top-four seed, a critical component to hosting first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games come late March.

But there’s more work to be done. The Hawkeyes’ next game is against the last team to beat them — Purdue, at 2 p.m. Sunday, this time in Iowa City.

“It still kind of gets at me, to think back at that game,” Bluder said. “… We should’ve played better. And we will play better. I think we’ll have a great crowd here, and we are going to be prepared for them.”