IOWA CITY, Iowa -- For second-seeded Iowa, Friday's win over 15th-seeded Mercer felt more like survival than vindication after nearly making the worst kind of history imaginable.
Megan Gustafson scored 30 points with 16 rebounds and the second-seeded Hawkeyes narrowly avoided a monumental upset, holding off No. 15 Mercer 66-61 for their first NCAA Tournament win in four years.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder thought the idea that a Mercer team on a 17-game winning streak would be a 15 seed was "kind of crazy" -- and the Bears proved her right.
"We personally liked our seed. We didn't love our opponent," Bluder said. "We played against somebody that was much more difficult than a 15 seed. Everybody can recognize and understand that."
Makenzie Meyer added 16 for the Hawkeyes (27-6), who pushed the record for two seeds in the opening round since the field expanded to 64 teams to 101-0.
The Hawkeyes needed some luck to keep that streak going.
Hannah Stewart hit three consecutive baskets after Iowa got down by two with 4:19 to go, putting the Hawkeyes ahead 64-61. Stewart missed a jumper with 21 seconds left, but the ball knocked off a Mercer player.
Iowa's Tania Davis then missed two free throws, but the Hawkeyes were bailed out of the ensuing scrum by the possession arrow.
Kathleen Doyle finally sealed it for Iowa with two free throws with 8.9 second to go.
"It's disappointing with the outcome," Mercer coach Susie Gardner said. "Our guys kept bouncing back. We had opportunities. We never went away."
Mercer pulled to within 37-36 before Meyer hit another 3 that appeared to swing momentum back in Iowa's favor early in the second half. But the Hawkeyes couldn't stop turning the ball over, and every shot Mercer missed seemed to bounce in the waiting arms of an open Bears player.
"They were just really aggressive defensively," Meyer said of Iowa's trouble protecting the ball. "They just did a good job tipping passes, and we could have probably done a better job using ball fakes."
Mercer took its first lead, 51-50, when Shannon Titus hit a jumper to beat the third-quarter buzzer. KeKe Calloway's 3 extended that lead to 56-52 with 6:58 left. Gustafson's three-point play put the Hawkeyes back on top 57-56, but Calloway answer with a 3 to put Mercer on top 59-57.
This was the second time in three years that a No. 15 seed almost beat a 2 seed. Oregon State staved off Long Beach State 56-55 in 2017.
Calloway scored 21 points and Amanda Thompson had 18 for Mercer (25-8). Had a few things gone their way down the stretch, the Bears might have made 18 straight wins.
THE BIG PICTURE
Iowa: If the Hawkeyes are as careless with the ball in the second round on Sunday as they were on Friday, they'll likely see their season come to an end.
Mercer: The Bears' senior class won a school-best 104 games and led the program to back-to-back NCAA bids. That group, headlined by Thompson and Calloway, will be tough to replace.
With 51 seconds left, Calloway had an open look at the basket from about 18 feet. The ball bounced off the rim and seemed to hang in the air forever before it fell into Gustafson's hands. Had that shot fallen, Mercer would have been down just 64-63. "I thought it had a chance, but it didn't go in," Calloway said.
SHE SAID IT
"There might have been a little (bit of) jitters collectively," Gustafson said. "I feel like it was good to be able to get the win no matter how ugly it was."
Iowa will face seventh-seeded Missouri, which edged Drake 77-76 in OT.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/WomensNCAATournament and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25