Iowa hosts Mercer, Drake meets Missouri at Carver-Hawkeye Arena
For all that Iowa star Megan Gustafson has accomplished, she has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game with the Hawkeyes.
Expect that to change on Friday.
Gustafson and the second-seeded Hawkeyes (26-6) will open tournament play when they host 15th-seeded Mercer (25-7). Iowa, which won the Big Ten tournament, hasn’t won in the NCAAs since making a Sweet Sixteen run in 2015 — before Gustafson arrived on campus.
The Hawkeyes were upset by Creighton in Los Angeles a year ago. They’ll likely survive such a scenario against the Bears, but Mercer’s 17-game winning streak has certainly caught Iowa’s attention.
“Went undefeated in their conference play, and it was pretty easy to get my players’ attention when we note that they only lost to Florida State by one point, where we lost to Florida State by four points. So this is a very good team,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
Of course, Mercer’s recent wins came in the tiny Southern Conference. But the Bears did give Georgia a scare in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and they have two players; Amanda Thompson and KeKe Calloway, who were named league player of the year this season.
Thompson got the nod from the SoCon coaches, while the league’s media named Calloway as the conference’s best.
“I don’t think we really think about the winning streak,” Thompson said. “We really take it one day at a time. I didn’t even realize until last week. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that we were on a winning streak. We just don’t want to talk about that.”
Should Iowa survive, it could get cross-state rival Drake — a 10 seed that’ll face No. 7 Missouri (23-10) in Friday’s other matchup in the Greensboro Region.
Here are some of the story lines to follow as the Hawkeyes look to make their seventh Sweet 16.
Drake (27-6) is coached by Jennie Baranczyk, a former All-Big Ten performer for Bluder and the Hawkeyes early in Bluder’s tenure. The two programs play each other every season, and the Bulldogs held their own in a 91-82 loss in Des Moines in December. Drake was even ranked heading into conference tournament play, but it was unexpectedly shocked by Missouri State in the Valley title game. “To get an at-large bid at Drake, we’re really proud of that, and at the same time, I think we’re hungrier than ever, Baranczyk said. “We’re ready and really excited that we get to play close enough to home that our fans get to come with us.”
Missouri is in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth season in a row, its best stretch since the mid-1980s. The Tigers are led by star guard Sophie Cunningham, a three-time All-SEC pick, who is averaging 18 points and 6.1 rebounds. “Since I’ve been here at Mizzou, this is the best team emotionally and physically going into the tournament. I feel like our team is in the best spot it’s been all year,” Cunningham said.
SHE SAID IT
“We don’t get the Big Ten Network in Georgia, so honestly, the only knowledge that I had of her was reading on ESPN that she got Player of the Year,” Mercer coach Susie Gardner said of Gustafson, who is averaging 28 points and 13.3 rebounds. “We obviously did a lot of research on her and watched a lot of film. First of all, you look at her stats, and you think, ‘Man, these stats cannot be real.’ It’s like when I’m watching film and she misses, it’s almost like a shock that she’s going to miss the shot.”