Defense saves Iowa women from turnover disaster

Turnovers almost led Iowa to an early exit from the NCAA Tournament, but the Hawkeye defense stopped that.

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Lily Smith

Iowa center Megan Gustafson and Mercer forward Lakaitlin Wright fight for control of the ball during the Iowa/Mercer NCAA Tournament first round women’s basketball game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, March 22, 2019. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Jordan Zuniga, Sports Reporter

The Iowa women’s basketball team pulled off a closer-than-expected win over No. 15 seed Mercer in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

With Iowa being a No. 2 seed, it seemed as if it would be a stress-free game for the numerous Hawkeye fans that packed into Carver-Hawkeye for Friday afternoon’s game. After all, a No. 2 seed has never lost in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

Instead, the Hawkeye faithful got a heart-pounding, sweat-it-out slugfest.

Many drops of sweat came courtesy of Iowa’s inability to take care of the ball. The Hawkeyes gave away 24 possessions throughout the game – a turnover about every 1:30 of game time.

“[Mercer] was just really aggressive defensively,” guard Makenzie Meyer said. “They have a couple of really long guards. They knew our game plan was to get the ball inside, and we probably should’ve done a better job getting the ball to Megan [Gustafson].”

Iowa’s previous high for turnovers on the season was 19 in a 71-67 loss to Florida State. What made Iowa’s carelessness even worse was Mercer totaled just 3 turnovers throughout the game.

“I’m disappointed in the turnovers,” head coach Lisa Bluder said. “I don’t know if it was nerves or rust, but that’s pretty uncharacteristic.”

Thanks to Iowa’s -21 turnover differential, the Bears launched 29 more shots. Not many teams would be able to win a basketball game with such a massive difference in turnovers and shots.

However, this Hawkeye squad isn’t your average basketball team.

Instead of focusing on what they weren’t doing well, the Hawkeyes hankered down on another aspect of the game.

“Our emphasis was just getting stops on defense,” Gustafson said. “It’s really important to do that [in close games].”

That mindset would prove to be a winning one for Iowa as defense was the main reason it pulled out a win.

Even with Mercer destroying Iowa in the turnover category, the Bears were unable to take advantage of their extra possessions.

Out of 24 opportunities, Mercer was only racked up 18 points off turnovers.

That speaks to how stout Iowa’s fast break defense is. This wasn’t the first game Iowa won a game in which it lost the turnover battle – it has now won 15 such games.

The Hawkeye defense was solid all-around all game.

Iowa held the Bears to 35 percent shooting and 24 percent from deep, yet that wasn’t even the Hawkeyes’ most impressive feat.

Mercer’s leading scorer, KeKe Calloway, came into the game averaging 17.9 points with an effective field goal percentage of 46.1.

While she ended the game with 21 points and a 40.4 effective field goal percentage, that doesn’t show the whole story.

Calloway played the whole first half, only totaling a dismal 3 points on 1-of-11 shooting.

She hit her stride in the second half and was a huge part of Mercer taking the lead early in the fourth quarter.

Even so, Kathleen Doyle frustrated Calloway at the right moments on the defensive end to ensure she wouldn’t fully take over the game.

Iowa will need more of its defense and less of the turnovers moving forward as it advances to the second round on March 24 against the winner Missouri-Drake.

“We’ll be better on Sunday,” Bluder said. “We’ll be more prepared Sunday. We’re going to flush [this game] and move on.”

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