Iowa women prevail down low against Michigan

Center Megan Gustafson and forward Hannah Stewart have been a powerful force in the Big Ten this season. Michigan looked to challenge them down low in Thursday night’s bout between the two teams.

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Lily Smith

Iowa forward Megan Gustafson drives to the basket during the Iowa/Michigan women’s basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, January 17, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wolverines, 75-61. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Pete Mills, Sports Reporter

No. 22 Iowa’s women’s basketball expected a fierce battle down low against Michigan on Thursday night, and that’s exactly what it got.

Michigan’s big players Naz Hillmon and Hallie Thome have had strong showings for the Wolverines this year in the paint, leading their team in both points and rebounds per game.

And of course, Hawkeye fans have grown used to the dominant pair of center Megan Gustafson and forward Hannah Stewart. The duo has faced tough competition this season, but each time, it seems Iowa’s bigs have gotten the best of their opponents.

All of this gave way for an intense battle under the hoop. The first portions of the matchup gave fans some old-school basketball, with 30 of the first 32 points scored in the game coming in the paint.

The squads had to rely on these dependable paint players because offense really wasn’t working for either team in other ways. Michigan and Iowa were a combined 1-for-11 from 3-point range to start the game.

That fierce battle down low fueled competitive rebounding. Michigan was helped by its offensive rebounding in the first half – the team grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in the opening half alone, converting these into 7 second-chance points.

“When we get into games and they’re physical down low, we’re ready for it,” Stewart said. “I’ve played against [Gustafson] for four years, so I feel like I can handle a lot of the physicality. We knew they were going to be tough.”

Michigan employed a common strategy used by Iowa opponents, which was double-teaming Gustafson down low to try and win the war in the paint. Gustafson found other ways to score, feeding the ball for 6 assists on the night. Many of these were dump-pass assists to Stewart.

Lily Smith
Iowa forward Hannah Stewart gestures during the Iowa/Michigan women’s basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, January 17, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wolverines, 75-61.

“Reading what the defense has been giving us [has been important],” Gustafson said. “They’ve been really focusing on me, with a double and triple-team sometimes. We practice that every single day.”

Iowa pulled away in the second half as the team’s shooting game finally took off. The game, however, was put away with a 6-point scoring run, all courtesy of Stewart. Stewart’s streak was a fitting way to end a great battle between the bigs on each team.

Those 7 offensive rebounds Michigan grabbed in the first half dwindled all the way down to 1 in the second, and head coach Lisa Bluder was happy with her team’s progress and resiliency.

“We held them to 9 points in [the third] quarter,” she said. “We had trouble boxing out in the first half, [but we] held them to 1 offensive rebound in the second half.”

Thome and Hillmon were Michigan’s leaders in both points and rebounds, combining for 29 and 11 boards. Similarly, Stewart and Gustafson led the Hawkeyes in both categories, posting a combined 36 points and 22 rebounds on the night.

Even the greatest long-range shooters in the world have cold streaks; when things aren’t working outside, relying on play in the paint is a beautiful remedy.

Consistent play from players down low is a mark of a basketball team that can cause damage deep into the month of March, just as the Hawkeyes hope to do this season.

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