Iowa women survive pesky Hoosiers in opener, advance to Big Ten Tournament semifinals

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Megan Gustafson, with plenty of help from her friends, made sure the Iowa women’s basketball team didn’t make an early exit in downtown Indy.

Gustafson, a National Player of the Year candidate, scored 30 points with 17 rebounds and four blocked shots Friday as the Hawkeyes survived an opening scare at the Big Ten Tournament. They hung on to beat Indiana, 70-61, to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2015.

"You know," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said, "I always think the first one is the hardest. Indiana is a great team, and we knew that coming into this game."

The victory was especially sweet for the Hawkeyes, who got payback they desired against the team that cost them a share of the regular-season title.

On Feb. 21, Indiana roared back from a 15-point second-half deficit to stun Iowa, 75-73, in Bloomington.

There was no such victorious comeback this time from the 10th-seeded Hoosiers. Although they sure made it interesting. 

Indiana was leading, 54-53, until senior guard Tania Davis calmly swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4 minutes, 11 seconds to go. It might've rivaled her game-winner against Iowa State as the biggest shot of her career.

Junior guard Kathleen Doyle followed with her first points of the game, a pull-up jumper, that pushed Iowa's lead to 58-54 with 3:22 remaining.

“We knew we had time. We were still confident in ourselves," Doyle said. "We were right where we wanted to be.”

Really? Not nerve-racking?

“I would say not worried," said Hannah Stewart, who had nine points and 13 rebounds. "We knew we were going to come back. If we just played our game, we were going to be fine.”

Indeed they were.

The Hawkeyes survived from there, with Doyle canning a clutch 3-pointer and Gustafson hitting 5 of 6 free throws in the final moments.

Megan Gustafson goes up against a crowd of Indiana defenders during the Hawkeyes' Big Ten Tournament opener on Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Iowa, which improved to 24-6, came to Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a lot to play for.

For starters, the program hasn’t won a conference tournament title since Bluder’s first season — 2001. That’s high on the wish list of a team that has its eyes on special things this postseason behind an all-time great in Gustafson.

The Hawkeyes are also trying to stake their claim to a No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The NCAA slotted them with a 2 in their latest unveiling this week, but it was the last 2 — so any early slip-ups could drop them to a 3.

On Friday, things weren’t pretty most of the way.

Iowa committed seven first-quarter turnovers, allowing Indiana (20-12) to hang around.

But, as mentioned, Iowa seemed to will itself to buckets whenever it needed one.

Just before the clock expired to end the first quarter, Makenzie Meyer rained in a long 3-pointer to give Iowa a 17-11 lead.

That proved to be the start of what was essentially a six-point possession, as Davis opened the second quarter with a baseline 3 for a 20-11 Iowa lead.

Indiana twice closed the gap to a one-basket game in the first half, but Gustafson always had an answer. She hit two wild layups — one as she was fouled while crashing to the ground, another while falling backward — to push Iowa’s halftime lead to 33-27.

Iowa next faces the later Rutgers-Purdue winner in Saturday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal. It'll be No. 1 seed Maryland vs. No. 4 Michigan in Saturday's other game.