By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — As the final seconds ticked off the clock Sunday in raucous Carver-Hawkeye Arena, University of Iowa seniors Megan Gustafson, Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart celebrated with a bouncy group hug.
“It was amazing, just to be with my seniors and that is our last time playing in Carver-Hawkeye Arena,” Gustafson said. “It was a bittersweet moment but mostly sweet, because it’s the Sweet 16 and we’re moving on.”
The second-seeded Hawkeyes advanced to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in program history and first time since 2015 with a 68-52 victory over No. 7 Missouri in front of 12,376 fans.
“I’ve got to start by thanking the crowd,” said Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder, the winningest coach in program history, after her team advanced to Greensboro, North Carolina, with a 28-6 record. “There was so much energy in the arena today and we loved it. Our three seniors deserved it. The whole team deserved it. I’m just thrilled that Hawkeye Nation got behind this team.”
After finishing the season 17-0 at home, Bluder, her staff, and team gathered on the floor to celebrate with the fans.
“I want to say thank you,” Bluder said, microphone in hand. “See you next year. On to the Sweet 16.”
Stewart took the lead, walking to the center of the floor and kissing the Tigerhawk logo. Gustafson and Davis did the same.
“I saw Megan slap the floor and said, ‘You know what? I want to go kiss the Tigerhawk,'” Stewart said. “All three of us went and planted one on it, a cool moment.”
Gustafson led the Hawkeyes with 24 points. Her 19 rebounds were one shy of her career high.
“She’s a load,” Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton said. “Great footwork, great hands. She has a great supporting cast and I think those girls really know their roles. They know what’s expected, they play such unselfish basketball, and they executed well.”
Trying to contain Gustafson left openings on the perimeter and Makenzie Meyer took advantage. She made 4 of 7 triples and scored 18 points. She made 9 of 14 triples in the two NCAA games. Kathleen Doyle added 15 points for Iowa and played an outstanding defensive game against Missouri star Sophie Cunningham.
Doyle limited the three-time first-team SEC guard to eight points, her lowest output since a four-point game Jan. 13 at Florida.
Iowa’s victory was defined by two key runs with one common element — stingy defense. A 12-0 run in the second quarter erased a 25-18 Missouri lead; a 19-2 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters, punched the Hawkeyes’ ticket to Greensboro.
“I think in those runs, we played great defensively,” Bluder said.
Missouri made just 9 of 29 field-goal attempts after halftime and shot 36.1 percent from the field overall.
The game was tied, 39-39, with 5:56 remaining in the third quarter. That’s when Iowa responded with that 19-2 run. Missouri missed 13 of 14 shots during the Hawkeye run.
When Iowa started the fourth quarter with 3-pointers from Davis and Meyer on two of the first four possessions, a 47-41 lead went to double figures and stayed that way.
Soon after, the celebration was in full swing. Davis called her kiss at center court “a moment that will always be near and dear to my heart.”
And she gets to put on the uniform at least one more time.
“We know we’re not done,” Davis said.
Gustafson became the Big Ten’s all-time leader in career rebounds Sunday. Her 19 boards gives her 1,438. Jantel Lavender of Ohio State held the previous mark of 1,422 between 2008-11.
Iowa has done an incredible job of keeping opponents off the free throw line in two NCAA games. Mercer didn’t attempt a free throw in Friday’s first-round game. Missouri made 1 of 2 attempts Sunday.
Iowa has been limited to just six fast-break points in two NCAA games. But its two opponents didn’t score a single fast-break point.
After turning the ball over a season-high 24 times against Mercer, the Hawkeyes had just four turnovers in the first half Sunday and 11 for the game.
QUOTING COACH BLUDER
“We just want to keep playing basketball. That’s what it’s all about. We wanted to make it to the Sweet 16 because we know that’s a huge accomplishment. But it’s not about the legacy, it’s about this family being together, it’s about these women having the opportunity to go to battle for another week.”
ON THE HORIZON
Iowa will meet the winner of Monday’s second-round game between Kentucky (25-7) and North Carolina State (27-5) on March 30 in Greensboro.