By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa avenged its 2017 Big Ten Tournament loss to Northwestern with a 55-45 victory over the Wildcats in the second round on Thursday afternoon. The fifth-seeded Hawkeyes (25-6), who will meet fourth-seed Minnesota Friday afternoon, were successful without much reliance on their best player.
Iowa center Megan Gustafson, the Big Ten Player of the Year who entered the contest averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds, was held to just 12 points and 9 boards. Sophomore guard Makenzie Meyer, who averaged 10 points, scored nine of her 13 before the end of the first quarter.
The Hawkeyes rode Meyer’s prolific shooting to a 22-1 lead in the first quarter. The single point tied for the fewest in a period in a Big Ten game since women’s basketball adopted four 10-minute quarters in 2015. “We were really ready to go right from the start,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. “We were focused right from the start, but I wish we would have kept it going the rest of the game.”
Costly turnovers coupled with errant layups decimated the Northwestern offense. No. 12-seed Northwestern (11-20) missed its first 15 field goal attempts. The first to fall didn’t come until 1:10 into the second quarter on a 3-point shot by Lindsey Pulliam.
Pulliam was the offensive lifeblood of the Wildcats, pacing their scoring with 17. Northwestern trailed by 21 early in the second quarter and all seemed to be lost. Then Jordan Hamilton sank a jumper. Bryana Hopkins followed this with a layup. Hamilton did her one better with a 3-pointer.
Northwestern built a 17-4 run to end the first half, thanks in large part to its defense. Iowa made just two of its last 12 field goal attempts and did not make one for the final 5:06 of the quarter. Despite the 11-point deficit, Northwestern entered halftime with momentum.
“The coaches told us to keep fighting and keep going,” Pulliam said. “If you start getting stops, the ball will fall eventually.”
The start of the second half mirrored that of the first for Iowa. The Hawkeyes jumped out to a 10-3 run, paced by three blocked shots. Northwestern began the half with 1-of-8 shooting from the field, but its defense kept the Wildcats in the game.
Gustafson’s 4-of-8 shooting tied a season-low for field-goal attempts and set a season low for field goals. “I think that was really different for us,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said of Gustafson’s limited productivity. “It’s good. It’s good for other people to understand that they need to step up in those situations, and that they can.”
Northwestern’s Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah and Abi Scheid combined for six steals, all while denying post feeds to Gustafson.
Northwestern utilized this defensive effort and creative passing to hang six quick points on Iowa before the quarter ended, stealing the momentum back again. Iowa owned a 41-29 advantage entering the final quarter but the Wildcats had a chance.
Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who finished with 6 points, began the quarter with a steal and a free throw. Pulliam recorded an and-1. With the Iowa lead down to eight points, Gustafson recorded her fourth foul and came out of the game with 8:15 to play.
A remarkable comeback, and the upset, seemed possible. With the Hawkeyes’ best player on the bench in foul trouble and Kunaiyi-Akpanah collecting many of her 17 rebounds in the fourth quarter, Iowa appeared vulnerable.
Enter Alexis Servillian.
Servillian, a redshirt freshman guard, did not score in the first three quarters. In the fourth, she scored 9 points. Her defensive efforts against Scheib in the waning minutes sealed the deal for the Hawkeyes.
“I just let it come to me,” Servillian said. “We realized the defense needed to step up to give us opportunities on the other end, and that’s what we did.”
It was a game of missed opportunities for Northwestern. Iowa had four scoring droughts of three minutes or more. Northwestern collected 17 offensive rebounds, but scored just 6 points as a result.
Iowa and Minnesota split their two regular-season games, with the home team winning both times.