LOS ANGELES — Creighton Coach Jim Flanery knew that Megan Gustafson was going to be tough to handle.
He joked about it at a press conference Friday, asking the room if they had any ideas on how to stop Iowa’s 6-foot-3 center that leads the nation averaging 25.6 points per game. He’s been preparing for her since he learned of the NCAA Tournament first-round matchup.
Yet Flanery’s strategy wasn’t to shut her down completely. Instead, it was to limit the rest of the Hawkeyes. And in a game that was tight from start to finish, that’s what gave the Bluejays the edge.
No. 11-seed Creighton (19-12) stayed one step ahead of No. 6-seed Iowa (24-8), knocking off the Hawkeyes, 76-70, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday night at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. The win sends the Bluejays on to the Round of 32, where they’ll take on No. 3-seed UCLA on Monday and sends the Hawkeyes home from their first NCAA Tournament appearance in two years.
“We did get it down to four (points) a couple of times, and just could never get it over that hump,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “We had a couple of turnovers at some poor times, and maybe (we didn’t have) the best shot selection at some times in those situations. ... I think it could have been different had we just gotten it down to a tie game.”
Gustafson still got hers. The junior finished with 29 points, shooting 12 of 16 from the field, and grabbed 17 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes. She even picked up her 28th double-double of the season with more than 2 minutes left in the second quarter. Creighton simply couldn’t match her down low.
Yet it was their defense away from Gustafson — which Iowa guard Kathleen Doyle said was very limiting on their offensive game plan — that helped the Bluejays to pull away at the end.
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“They were sagging off a few of us and just making it hard to enter it into the post,” Doyle said. “That made our offense hard to run. They did a great job.”
Creighton held just a six-point lead heading into the final quarter, and twice in the last period the Hawkeyes pulled the game to within just four points. The game was never really out of Iowa’s reach.
But every time it seemed Iowa was going to get a defensive stop, Creighton either knocked down a bucket as the shot clock expired or grabbed an offensive rebound, extending their offensive possession.
“I thought they did a really good job of just using the shot clock,” Bluder said. “You work that hard on defense for 30 seconds, it’s a long time. I think we were making their job a little easier. We were only making them play defense for 5, 10 seconds, where we were having to play defense every time for 30 seconds. You play defense for 30 seconds, you’re going to have more opportunities to foul, you’re going to get a little more tired, and it gets harder to keep them in front of you.”
The Iowa offense wasn’t the issue at the end of the game — it put up 20 points and was within striking distance throughout the final quarter. Just failing to get stops, Gustafson said, is what truly was the difference late in the stretch, and is the reason the Hawkeyes are headed home.
“I think overall we were just trading baskets with them,” Gustafson said. “I think that’s what really ultimately stopped us. We weren’t able to get the stops on the defensive end. If we were able to do that, I think we’d have a different result.”