INDIANAPOLIS — By the time Iowa forward Megan Gustafson checked back in with a couple of minutes left in the Big Ten tournament championship game, she had already sewn up two trophies — one for her team, and one for herself as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Maryland women’s basketball guard Kaila Charles had tried to keep up as the NCAA’s leading scorer wreaked havoc on the Terps’ defense, and for much of the first three quarters, she was successful.
But Gustafson helped turn a tied game with 7:21 left in the third into a nine-point Iowa lead entering the fourth, so it hardly mattered when she picked up her fourth foul and took a seat midway through the final period.
Gustafson scored 45 points en route to a 90-76 Hawkeyes win in the Big Ten Championship game, outdueling Charles’ career-high 36 and pushing No. 2-seed Iowa past the top-seeded Terps.
“A lot of adversity for us with a lot of foul trouble. We continued to just keep putting our heads down and keep battling,” coach Brenda Frese said. “We had no answer to be able to stop the All-American.”
A year removed from falling to Ohio State at the same stage of the conference tournament, Maryland (28-4, 15-3 Big Ten) set out to reclaim its place atop the Big Ten with a fourth tourney crown. But a Gustafson-led Iowa (26-6, 14-4), which took the teams’ lone regular-season matchup in February behind another big performance from its star, wouldn’t be denied Sunday.
The Big Ten Player of the Year was unguardable. Maryland had three players foul out, and three more logged at least three fouls. Because of that, the Terps’ post depth was exposed.
“From the very first possession, they showed that the game was going to be called really tight,” Frese said, “and that impacted us greatly.”
The opening minutes set the stage for the foul-laden remainder of the night.
Gustafson drew a foul on forward Stephanie Jones on Iowa’s first trip down floor, and Austin was quickly called for another guarding the senior.
Just two minutes in, forward Brianna Fraser was forced to come off the bench with Jones and Austin relegated to the sideline, and Iowa responded with an explosive 15-0 run to erase Maryland’s 7-2 start.
“They flopped a lot,” forward Shakira Austin said. “They got good position. We just have to do better.”
Iowa’s run, which eventually went to 21-4, helped power the Hawkeyes to a 33-19 edge and the largest lead of the opening half. But facing adversity, Maryland turned to its usual spark plug.
Charles took over after a relatively pedestrian opening quarter, and following a signature pull-up jumper, Maryland had trimmed its deficit to 35-29 behind a 10-2 spurt.
The junior had 22 points in the first half, including 16 on 6-of-9 shooting in the second frame alone.
“I just saw how aggressive I can be in transition and the half-court,” Charles said. “And then they were in a triangle-and-two, and I was still able to get to the basket.”
But the Terps could not stop Gustafson. The senior netted 26 first-half points on 10-of-14 shooting, and in the few instances when she didn’t score, her physical style alone was a problem for the Terps.
Seldom-used center Olivia Owens was forced into the rotation with Jones and Fraser already on the bench with two fouls, and the freshman didn’t fare well.
Owens was called for two quick fouls on her first two trips down the floor, accumulating four in the opening half alone and fouling out in just six minutes of play. All four of the Terps’ forwards had at least two fouls before halftime.
“What we need to work on is just trying not to get at the refs, and just being present,” Charles said. “And knowing, ‘Ok, [Gustafson] got the call, but next time we’ll do a better job.’”
Still, Charles kept the game close, and Maryland entered the locker room with a manageable 51-45 deficit.
Gustafson and Charles continued to trade blows after the intermission, but the Terps’ leader began to slow while Iowa’s star continued to dominate.
“Megan’s so strong, so physical, and so just a very difficult matchup,” Frese said. “The tremendous foul trouble we were in really impacted us.”
Gustafson continued to make left hook after left hook, and her final basket of the third quarter, a second-chance finish over her left shoulder, capped a 10-2 run to enter the deciding period with a 69-60 advantage.
Early in the fourth quarter, Gustafson went on a 7-1 personal run to quash any chance of a comeback bid. As streamers and confetti fell from the rafters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Gustafson teared up after finishing three points shy of her career high.
And in the handshake line postgame, she and Charles held a prolonged embrace, recognizing each other for monumental performances. But it was Gustafson’s epic night, causing and then taking advantage of Maryland’s foul trouble, that won out and doomed the Terps to a second straight title game loss.
“This is not a bad loss, we got beat by a great team,” Frese said. “This team hates to lose. The beautiful thing, like I told them, is this isn’t our last game.”