It took four games and four days but the Iowa women’s basketball team finally found a Big Ten Tournament obstacle it couldn’t overcome.
No. 16 Nebraska built a 14-point first-half lead and held off a furious second-half rally by No.23 Iowa (26-8), claiming its first Big Ten Tournament title Sunday with a 72-65 win over the Hawkeyes at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The title game win was the 12 for Nebraska (25-6) in its last 13 games and the Cornhuskers’ eighth straight win over Iowa since joining the Big Ten.
“We have been in the league for three years and we have competed for the conference championship four times, so that says something about the consistency of our program,” Nebraska coach Connie Yori said. “I mean men’s and women’s basketball, we’re not just a football school any longer? All right?”
After overcoming injuries and foul trouble to win its first three Big Ten Tournament games, Iowa dug itself too big of a hole against the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska used an early 16-0 run to build an 18-4 lead nine minutes into the game and Iowa was never able to fully recover as the Hawkeyes had a six-game winning streak snapped with their first loss since Feb. 16.
“I’m proud of my kids, I’m proud of their effort. I thought we battled,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We had to go through some tough situations with some foul trouble and I thought we battled.”
Despite having three players limited by foul trouble, Iowa battled back from an eight-point half-time deficit cutting the lead to one at 57-56 with less than five minutes to play.
However, it was too much Nebraska and too much Rachel Theriot down the stretch.
Theriot scored 19 of her game-high 24 points in the second half on her way to tournament most valuable player honors.
The sophomore guard scored six points during an 8-3 Nebraska run after Iowa closed the lead to one.
“A couple of those were, I mean, you’re going to let her take a couple of those, she knocked down a couple of those tough shots, a couple runners that you’re going to live with her making,” junior Sam Logic said of Theriot. “Obviously, she’s playing really well for them right now and a couple of those are just, just tough, tough shots. And some of them were over screens, but that’s what good players do.”
Jordan Hooper added 18 points and 10 rebounds while Hailie Sample had 11 points and 15 rebounds for the Cornhuskers, who held a 58-27 rebounding edge.
Despite being outrebounded by 31 by Nebraska and outscored by 19 at the foul line, Iowa trailed by just one after Ally Disterhoft hit three free throws with 7:13 left.
Iowa had three chances to take the lead trailing 57-56 but Logic missed a pair of jump shots and Disterhoft was off the mark with a 3-pointer.
Nebraska pushed the lead back to five with four straight free throws by Tear’a Laudermill and Theriot, the final two coming after a Bluder technical foul with 4:34 left.
“I don’t think I’ve had one in 10 years; I don’t remember the last one I had,” Bluder said of the technical, which she was told came because she stomped her foot. “Seems like a crazy time to get one and I take full responsibility for that. It was a bad time to get it, and I apologized to the team immediately for that. Wish I could have taken it back.”
Two free throws by Disterhoft with 4:11 left cut the lead down to three but Theriot hit a runner in the lane and added two more free throws to push the margin back to six with 2:21 left.
Iowa wouldn’t get closer than three points the rest of the way as Nebraska hit six straight free throws in the final 31 seconds.
Nebraska finished 30-of-36 from the free throw line compared to 11-of-14 for Iowa.
“When a team shoots 36 free throws to your 14 and then when you give up that many offensive rebounds, it’s hard to win a game with those type of numbers,” Bluder said. “It’s unfortunate, but I’m proud that my team hung in there, especially in the first half when we were in severe foul trouble we held in there and made it a contest at the end.”
Disterhoft led three Iowa players in double figures with 20 points on her way to being named to the all tournament team.
Logic finished with 14 points and six assists while Dixon added 11 points.
“We battled hard and we fought through a lot of adversity,” Disterhoft said. “To be in a game where you get outrebounded by 30 and that other team shoots 30 or so more free throws than you is insane. That just shows our resilience and that we are never going to give up.”
Iowa will now await its NCAA Tournament fate.
The Hawkeyes are a lock to be selected to the tournament and will host the first two rounds on March 23 and 25.
“I think we have an excellent resume and I hate to predict seeds and those type of things, but our RPI was about 23 or something like that coming into this and I know that’s not the only factor, but it’s a significant factor and it only could have gone up since we have been here,” Bluder said. “So I think we deserve a high seed. A very high seed. I think we deserve a four or five seed. I think that’s really legitimate.”