INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Iowa’s Megan Gustafson flicked the ball away one last time Saturday night then pumped her fists and shouted with glee.
Yes, the two-time Big Ten player of the year can finally forget about all those early exits and disappointing finishes and focus on becoming a conference champion.
Gustafson scored 20 points and had 12 rebounds to help the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes fend off Rutgers’ frantic fourth-quarter charge and hold on for a 72-67 victory. Iowa will face No. 8 Maryland on Sunday in the title game.
“It feels pretty great,” Gustafson said after posting her second double-double in two days. “Right now, this is kind of all we’ve got and we just have to keep it going. I’m just really excited to put it all out there tomorrow.”
While the Hawkeyes (25-6) have been in this situation before, Gustafson has not.
Iowa last played for the tourney crown in 2014 and won its second and most recent title in 2001.
In previous three trips to Indianapolis, though, Gustafson won only two games and never made it past the quarterfinal round. The postseason has been equally problematic with three wins in two trips to the WNIT and a first-round loss in her first NCAA Tournament appearance last season.
Now, if the Hawkeyes take down Maryland for the second time in a month, Gustafson will finally have the line she so desperately wants on an already stellar resume.
“We’re pretty happy right now,” coach Lisa Bluder said. “It’s pretty exciting for us to be playing for the championship tomorrow. We’re excited to get back, get our scouting report done.”
Iowa looked as if it would cruise into the championship game when it took a 53-33 lead midway through the third quarter. Instead, third-seeded Rutgers (22-9) cut the deficit to 13 at the end of three then used a 16-2 fourth-quarter run to close to 63-60 with 3:47 to play.
Arella Guirantes had 16 points to lead Rutgers and Stasha Carey added 14 points and seven rebounds as the Scarlet Knights lost for the second time without coach C. Vivian Stringer, who announced she was taking a leave of absence in late February.
“They came out and they punched us in the face from the beginning,” acting head coach Tim Eatman said. “But to our kids credit, they fought back and they didn’t get knocked out.”
Rutgers: If Stringer returns for the postseason, as expected, the Scarlet Knights will be one of the NCAA Tournament’s top stories. Rutgers last made the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes are one win away from that elusive the conference crown. All that stands in their way is a rematch with No. 8 Maryland. Iowa won the only other meeting this season, 86-73 on its home court. But on a neutral court will be a more difficult challenge.
Rutgers: Noga Peleg Pelc also scored 14 points. ... Guirantes also had four assists. ... The Scarlet Knights forced 17 turnovers, 14 steals and were 6 of 17 on 3s.
Iowa: Hannah Stewart wound up with 14 points and seven rebounds. ... Makenzie Meyer made three 3s and had 13 points and four assists. ... Gustafson had three blocks and two assists. ... Iowa shot 41.9 percent from the field after coming into the weekend with the best shooting percentage in Division I (52.2 percent).
THEY SAID IT
Rutgers: “We wish there was another five minutes,” Eatman said. “We felt like if there was another five minutes, we would have been in good shape.”
Iowa: “Thank goodness we were up 20, right?” Bluder said. “Good thing we weren’t just up 10 or 15.”
Rutgers: Awaits the NCAA Tournament pairings to find out who, where and when they will play next.
Iowa: The conference’s regular-season runner-up will face regular-season champion Maryland in Sunday’s title game.
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