IOWA CITY — How sweet it is.
The eighth-ranked Iowa women’s basketball team turned a dominating defensive performance into a Sweet 16 berth Sunday, advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 with a 68-52 victory over Missouri.
The Hawkeyes treated a loud, difference-making crowd of 12,376 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to a postgame celebration which lasted more than an hour after the game ended, clipping down nets, signing autographs and posing for pictures after earning the chance to play on in the postseason.
“We’re not done yet!’’ Iowa’s Megan Gustafson said shortly after wrapping up a 17-0 season at home by joining fellow seniors Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart in kissing the Tigerhawk logo on the center of the court. “The best part of all, this team gets to keep playing games. We don’t want it to end.’’
The Hawkeyes played that way Sunday.
Gustafson and Makenzie Meyer combined for every point in a 12-0 run which sent Iowa on its way to a 33-29 halftime advantage. After the Tigers forged a 39-39 tie midway through the third quarter, Meyer and Gustafson scored the game’s next six points to push the Hawkeyes in front to stay.
Earning a spot in Saturday’s regional semifinal in Greensboro, N.C., against the winner of Monday's game between Kentucky and North Carolina State, Iowa finished off Missouri by limiting the Tigers to one field goal over an 11-minute stretch.
That drought started when Meyer broke the 39-39 deadlock with a jumper with 5 minutes, 8 seconds to go in the third quarter and ended when Sophie Cunningham cut into Iowa’s 58-41 lead on a lay-up with 4:46 remaining in the Tigers' season.
“With about six minutes left in the game, it didn’t feel like anything was working,’’ Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “They had too much firepower and even though I felt like we were getting decent looks, it didn’t seem like we could get anything to drop.’’
Iowa limited the Tigers to their second-lowest point total of the season, holding Missouri to 36.2-percent shooting.
The Hawkeyes blended zone defenses and a triangle-and-two with man-to-man looks which prevented the Tigers from ever getting comfortable offensively.
That limited Cunningham to eight points over 33 minutes, more than 10 below her team-leading scoring average.
“She’s an awesome player and our goal was to do whatever it took to make her life as hard as possible,’’ Iowa guard Kathleen Doyle said. “They have a good shooting team and we couldn’t let them get into a rhythm.’’
The Iowa defense was at its best when it fueled the Hawkeyes’ two runs, the 12-0 spurt during the second quarter and the 19-2 burst split between the third and fourth that secured the seventh Sweet 16 berth in the program’s history.
“We were making them run time off the clock to get any sort of a look, but we kept getting stops and getting stops and that wears on a team after a while,’’ Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I really felt like our defense stepped up.’’
Gustafson and Meyer led the Hawkeye offense and that proved problematic for the Tigers (24-11).
“Megan did what she does,’’ Pingeton said. “The hope coming in was to limit her and to limit what they did from 3-point range. Everybody has been trying to figure it out all season. She has such a good supporting cast that plays off of her so well.’’
Missouri, which was led by a 21-point game from Amber Smith, did hold Gustafson four points below her season scoring average, but her 24 points were complemented by 18 from Meyer and 15 from Doyle.
“We were able to get things going inside out a few times and the open looks they gave us, we were able to knock a few down,’’ Meyer said.
None were bigger than the 3-point baskets Davis and Meyer hit during the opening minutes of the fourth quarter as Iowa (28-6) extended its lead to double digits for the first time.
“You hit a couple of threes like that and all of a sudden, the confidence is growing, and you’re feeling like we’ve got this,’’ said Davis, who later gave Iowa its biggest lead of the game at 66-46 on a basket with 1:20 remaining. “They went zone and the looks they were there, knock ‘em down.’’
Gustafson became the Big Ten’s career rebounding leader during the game as well. The fourth of her 19 boards allowed her to top the old mark of 1,422 held by Jantel Lavender of Ohio State.
It was just another day at the office for Gustafson.
“It was a bittersweet day, this being our last game at Carver-Hawkeye,’’ Gustafson said. “But, it was as sweet as it gets, Sweet 16, that sounds pretty good right now.’’