By DeSherion McBroom | @dvo_maximus
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Iowa advanced to the championship game of the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament for the first time since 2014 with a 72-67 victory over Rutgers. The Hawkeyes (25-6) were led by Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Gustafson, who finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots, the 28th time in 31 games she has scored 20 or more points.
The No. 2-seeded Hawkeyes, who won the 1997 and 2001 tournaments, will meet No. 1 Maryland at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Hannah Stewart scored 14 points and seven rebounds, and Makenzie Meyer, who played all 40 minutes, finished with 13. Tania Davis scored nine points with four assists. Davis made one 3-point shot, with 1:35 to play, after what had been a 20-point Iowa lead had been cut to just three points.
Arella Guirantes led third-seeded Rutgers (22-9) with 16 points. Stasha Carey and Noga Peleg Pelc each scored 14.
Rutgers, which was making its first appearance in a Big Ten semifinal, trailed by 51-31 with 4:58 to go in the third quarter. Iowa was ahead, 61-47, after Gustafson’s basket with 8:02 to play in the game. But a 15-4 Rutgers run brought the Scarlet Knights within three points on a layup by Victoria Harris with 2:02 to play.
In the end, Iowa was able to hold on thanks to senior leadership.
“Well, thank goodness we were up 20,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “This team has really good composure when you have good leadership and you have good seniors, experienced, and been around the block a little bit, they can handle those situations a little bit better.”
Rutgers had different plans as the Scarlet Knights began to get back to their game plan and believe in themselves.
“Once we started to believe in what we were doing and what we trying to get accomplished, then we started making progress,” said assistant coach Tim Eatman, who directed the Scarlet Knights in the absence of coach C. Vivian Stringer, who missed the game because of health reasons. “Then all of sudden we started being able to get them on their heels and once we get them on their heels, we had an opportunity to win.”
The Scarlet Knights made just two of their first 11 shots and committed four turnovers within the first seven minutes of the game. Iowa’s 12-2 run early in the first quarter helped the Hawkeyes grab the early lead. Gustafson, who made just one of her first five shots, was swarmed by Rutgers defenders each time she touched the ball.
“I had a couple of shots that didn’t go in in the first quarter but my teammates did a nice job of just uplifting me, kept encouraging me, and I really focused on other things,” said Gustafson.
In the second half, Rutgers continued to apply pressure, but Iowa’s guards were able to break the press often enough to create layups.
“We had a couple different options for press breakers and I think we just did a really good job of preparing for that,” Stewart said. “….We have two great point guards in Kathleen (Doyle) and Tania. They did a really good job down the stretch of being able to get it across the court.”
Rutgers came within three points on the basket by Harris with 2:01 to go. But when Davis responded with her only 3-point shot of the game, the lead was back to six points.
“Rutgers is a gritty team and we knew they were going to go on some runs,” said Stewart, who admitted the Hawkeyes might have relaxed with the 20-point lead.
“But I don’t think there was ever a doubt in any of our heads that we weren’t going to win that game.”