A season and a magical run in the NCAA Tournament ended in the Greensboro, North Carolina regional final tonight as the No. 2 seed Iowa Hawkeyes fell to the No. 1 overall seed Baylor Bears, 85-53.
It was Iowa’s first time in the Elite Eight in head coach Lisa Bluder’s career, but the Bears were just in a different league than the Hawkeyes, both in size and depth. The matchup featured the highest scoring team in the country in Iowa and the best defense in the country in Baylor, and the Bears defense certainly stepped up to the task at hand.
It was a frustrating night for Megan Gustafson, but she did manage to score 23 points, putting her as the fourth player of all time to score 1000+ points in a single season. But the game was a struggle for Gustafson, and the other Hawkeyes as well. The only other double digit scorers were Tania Davis and Kathleen Doyle. Hannah Stewart added eight, and Makenzie Meyer was held to only two points.
For Baylor, the names you need to know were the ones you would have expected: Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown dominated on both ends of the floor. Cox finished the night with 22 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals and blocks a piece, while Brown finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks, and succeeded in frustrating Gustafson all night long. DiDi Richards put on a show for Baylor as well, stuffing the stat sheet with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists and 6 steals.
Not much you can do as defenders when it seems like everybody on the other team is hitting shots at an incredible rate. Iowa’s struggles shooting and turnovers certainly didn’t help as well: the Hawkeyes finished the night shooting 32% overall, and 30% from beyond the arc.
Iowa scored the first basket of the game, but from there, the Bears went on a 7-0 run in response. They did manage to tie the game at 11 with 4:30 left in the first quarter, and it was about as much as one could ask for the Hawkeyes. But from there, Baylor ripped off an 8-0 run as the Hawkeyes went cold from the floor, and the Hawkeyes trailed 21-13 at the end of one.
The Hawkeyes came out aggressive on the defensive end to start the second half, despite quickly finding themselves with a double digit deficit. But that double-digit lead continued to keep the Hawkeyes from making a run, and the team would never draw close again. Every time anything would go Iowa’s way, Baylor would respond. But Doyle hit two straight 3-pointers, and drew the lead to 31-23, the closest it had been since the second possession of the quarter. But Mulkey put Richards on Doyle and suddenly, the Baylor lead was 16 thanks to an 8-0 run.
A recurring theme of the night was Iowa missing good, make-able looks. At times, it just seemed like the Hawkeyes couldn’t buy a bucket if they wanted to, wide open or double-teamed, and it resulted in the Hawkeyes entering halftime trailing 41-27.
The second half was more of the same early. Any time Iowa would chip into Baylor’s 14 point lead, the Bears would turn around and get the lead right back to where it was before, and eventually got the lead up to 20. The second half, the Hawkeyes just didn’t have it in them. They missed more easy shots, struggled on defense, and Gustafson was held without a rebound for the entirety of the half.
The Hawkeyes just couldn’t stop the bleeding in the second half as the Baylor lead continued to grow. The Hawkeyes looked frustrated matching up against the size of Baylor and the games physicality on both ends of the floor by midway through the fourth quarter.
It was certainly a sad way to see this run end for the Hawkeyes, but this was a season for the record books regardless. Bluder’s first Elite Eight team. Big Ten Tournament champions. Gustafson winning ESPNw player of the year and becoming an AP All-American, breaking records seemingly daily. But this team was more than Gustafson as well. Davis overcoming the adversity of two ACL tears in her career to be a crucial component of the team success. The lethal shooting of Makenzie Meyer, and the great efforts of Doyle and Stewart on top of it.
This team was infectiously fun to watch on a nightly basis. Gustafson will certainly be missed, but we all know that Bluder will be able to reload, and hopefully make another tournament run sooner rather than later.