INDIANAPOLIS - Looking to secure the program’s first NCAA bid since 2015, the Gophers women’s basketball team needed a Big Ten tournament victory Friday against Iowa to feel comfortable.
March Madness projections had the Gophers among the last four bubble teams in the field despite 22 regular-season wins and tying for fourth place in a power conference.
After losing a 12-point lead in the first half, Minnesota had to fight off Megan Gustafson’s Big Ten tourney-record 48 points for a 90-89 quarterfinals victory against the Hawkeyes in front of 5,274 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Gophers (23-7) had their highest seed (fourth) in the conference tournament since 2007-08. They reached the Big Dance that season after losing their opening game in Indianapolis, but that wouldn’t happen this year.
“I do think it gets us in safely,” Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said about the NCAA tournament. “Our team is really focused. This is the first time in 13 years our program has been in the semifinal game and the second time in the history of the program. I’ve said many, many months ago, this is a special group.”
Carlie Wagner and Kenisha Bell had 27 and 26 points, respectively, for Minnesota, which will play top-seeded Ohio State at 5 p.m. Saturday in the semifinals.
The Buckeyes defeated Rutgers 82-57 in Friday’s first quarterfinal.
In a game where the Gophers started 1-for-15 from three-point range, they managed to stay close by grabbing 13 offensive rebounds, scoring 46 points in the paint and 17 points off Iowa’s 19 turnovers.
“We just had to stay poised throughout the whole thing,” Bell said. “As long as we stayed patient and poised, all we had to worry about is picking up the intensity on defense, keeping it steady and not worry about other plays. Just worry about that moment.”
Wagner, Bell and Gadiva Hubbard attacked the basket early and often Friday, scoring 22 of their baskets inside the arc.
Eventually, though, they needed some outside shots to fall to match the most dominant low-post scorer in women’s college hoops.
Stollings threw all the defensive matchups she could at Gustafson, named the media’s Big Ten player of the year, to keep her contained. Foul trouble held the 6-3 junior to 12 points in Iowa’s second-round win Thursday against Northwestern.
Nothing worked Friday. Gustafson broke Ohio State All-America guard Kelsey Mitchell’s Big Ten tournament single-game scoring record by muscling in a shot for her 45th point to give Iowa an 80-79 lead with 4:16 left to play.
A few minutes later, Wagner gave Minnesota a one-point edge. Gustafson answered again with a three-point play to regain the lead for the Hawkeyes 87-85.
The back-and-forth affair continued with Destiny Pitts drilling a three-pointer to make it 88-87 Minnesota. The Gophers looked to seal things when Hubbard hit two free throws after a steal for a three-point lead with under a minute to go.
After they got within a point, the Hawkeyes got a critical defensive stop to set up a last-second play for the win, but they couldn’t get the ball to Gustafson, who shot 19-for-26 from the field, 10-for-12 from the foul line and grabbed 15 rebounds.
Pitts and Hubbard combined for 29 points for the Gophers, who won for a second time this season against Iowa.
Minnesota entered the game No. 46 in the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and a projected 10th seed by ESPN. Iowa was a No. 6 seed.
The Gophers now have signature wins against Iowa, Michigan and Maryland, which should be enough to feel safe during the NCAA tournament selection show March 12.
“Obviously, it was in the back of our mind,” Wagner said. “We knew this game was huge for NCAA tournament reasons.
“I think that’s why we played so aggressive and with so much intensity.