By Pat Harty
For just the fourth time in school history, and for the first time since 1993, the Iowa women’s basketball team is headed to the NCAA Elite Eight.
The Hawkeyes earned that elusive milestone by pounding North Carolina State 79-61 in the Sweet 16 on Saturday in Greensboro, N.C.
All-America senior center Megan Gustafson tied an NCAA single-season record by recording her 33rd double-double of the season with 27 points and 12 rebounds.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team and how much heart we showed on the court today," Gustafson said on the ESPN post-game interview. "They went on some really good runs and NC State is a great team. So I'm so proud of how we played today."
Gustafson was hardly a solo act as Iowa's five starters all made significant contributions.
Senior forward Hannah Stewart finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and junior guard Kathleen Doyle had eight assists to go along with her nine points.
Senior point guard Tania Davis finished with 10 points and six assists, while junior guard Makenzie Meyer scored nine points.
Junior guard Alexis Sevillian also came off the bench and made two crucial 3-point baskets for the Hawkeyes, who had 24 assists on 31 made field-goals.
Davis made a 3-point basket to give Iowa a 71-53 lead with slightly more than five minutes left to play and Gustafson followed with a basket that pushed the lead to 20 points at 73-53 with less than 5 minutes remaining.
The Wolfpack never really threatened again as Iowa won its eighth game in a row and for the 12th time in the last 13 games.
Iowa improved to 29-6 and will play top-ranked Baylor on Monday with a trip to the Final Four in Tampa. Fla., on the line. Baylor advanced by crushing South Carolina 93-68 in the other Sweet 16 game on Saturday in Greensboro.
The Lady Bears are 34-1 and have a tall frontline to challenge Gustafson with 6-foot-7 senior Kalani Brown and 6-4 junior Lauren Cox leading the way on defense.
Baylor defeated Iowa 81-66 in the Sweet 16 in 2015 and has become a national power under veteran head coach Kim Mulkey.
Iowa has only played in the Final Four once, and that was in 1993 under former head coach C. Vivian Stringer. Iowa also advanced to the Elite Eight under Sringer in 1987 and 1988.
This deep run in the tournament is new to Gustafson, and to her teammates, considering none of them had even won an NCAA Tournament game before this season.
Iowa lost to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season and played in the WNIT in the two seasons before that when Gustafson was a freshman and sophomore.
Gustafson only took three shots in the first half, which ended with Iowa leading 37-24, but she made all three and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line in the first half for 11 points.
All five of Iowa’s starters scored from five to 11 points in the first half, but it was Iowa’s defense, especially on the interior, that really stood out in the two quarters.
The Wolfpack came out strong in the third quarter and quickly cut the deficit to seven points at 43-36 with just under seven minutes left in the third quarter.
Bluder saw the momentum shifting away from her team so she called a timeout with 6 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third quarter to regroup.
Both teams then had a stretch in the third quarter with the score stuck at 43-36 where they couldn’t make any shots. Iowa missed six shots in a row during one stretch in the third quarter.
North Carolina State finally scored on a breakaway layup to trim the deficit to 43-38, but then Sevillian answered with a 3-point basket to expand Iowa’s lead to 46-38 with 3:51 left in the third quarter.
Gustafson then made back-to-back baskets and Doyle also made a basket to give Iowa a 52-40 lead with less than 2 minutes left in the quarter.
Stewart made a basket to give Iowa a 56-44 lead with 20 seconds left in the third quarter, and that was the score when the quarter ended.
Iowa had a 12-point lead after three quarters and was just 10 minutes from advancing to the Elite 8 for just the fourth time in school history.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder was interviewed by ESPN between the third and fourth quarters and she figured that North Carolina State would make a run.
She also said the key down the stretch would be defense and rebounding and that proved to be true. Iowa excelled in both areas and was rewarded with a trip to the Elite 8.