All signs indicated the Gophers would have to be at their best to beat Iowa on Sunday. The Hawkeyes had an 18-game winning streak at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. A crowd of 9,726 turned out to celebrate four well-loved seniors, and Iowa was eager to get some revenge for its 93-80 loss to the Gophers a couple of weeks ago when Amanda Zahui B. had an historic 39-point, 29-rebound performance.
But too many lapses hurt the Gophers for the second game in a row, sending them to the Big Ten tournament with a two-game losing streak. They played well in spurts during a 92-76 victory, rallying after a horrible start, but their inability to limit Iowa's three-point specialists wrecked their chances. Despite coach Marlene Stollings emphasizing the importance of defending the three, the Gophers couldn't keep up with Iowa's crisp ball movement and well-oiled offense.
So the Gophers head to the tournament on a bit of a down note. They are the No. 6 seed and open Thursday night, in the last game of the day, against the winner of Wednesday's first-round game between No. 11 seed Wisconsin and No. 14 seed Purdue. The Gophers beat Wisconsin twice this season--winning 72-60 on the road on Jan. 4 and 93-84 at Williams Arena on Feb. 11. They split with Purdue, winning 81-68 at West Lafayette on Jan. 1 and losing 90-88 in overtime at home on Jan. 22.
The Gophers did some things well Sunday. They outrebounded Iowa 48-34 and outscored it 40-24 in the paint. Shae Kelley was fearless in going to the hoop, as usual, leading the team with 29 points, and Zahui had 21 rebounds, seven blocks and 22 points. But the Gophers relied much too heavily on those two, and they got caught flat-footed on defense way too many times against a team that leads the Big Ten in three-pointers made (8.0 per game) and three-point percentage (38 percent). Iowa made 13 of 23 three-pointers, with Melissa Dixon hitting eight of 11.
"We just had trouble getting after their three-point shooters,'' Kelley said. "And them getting to the high post area, they were able to make plays from there. I'm sure they scouted us a little bit and did things differently. We had good spells where we defended them very well. But then, they would go on some spurts where they would get a couple threes on us, and that really hurt us in the end.''
While Stollings was most concerned about the defense, it wasn't a good sign that Kelley and Zahui got so little support. The rest of the team made nine of 32 field-goal attempts. Carlie Wagner made two of 10 shots, one game after making one of 12 in a loss at Nebraska. Mikayla Bailey was one of nine and fouled out. The bench contributed six points and played 15 minutes.
"Ideally, we would like to have three people in double figures and oftentimes four when we've won games,'' Stollings said. "We would like to have that third scorer for sure. Scoring 76 on the road, I'm pretty pleased with. But defensively, we were not solid in any way, shape or form, particularly in the second half, giving up 50 points.''
Stollings said the Gophers must "stay locked into'' their scouting report and not allow their concentration to drift, as it did against Iowa--particularly Dixon--on Sunday. Dixon is No. 2 in NCAA Division I with 3.61 three-pointers per game, and she is third in Big Ten history with 311 career three-pointers entering the game. The senior was clearly fired up for her last regular-season game at home.
"We have to stay focused, stay engaged the entire game, and feed off of each other,'' Kelley said. "When we're talking, moving, talking to each other, that’s when we're playing the best, when we're defending the best. That's key to us going into the tournament.''