Micaela Kelly's foul trouble digs hole for Central Michigan, which falls to Iowa in NCAAs

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Heather Oesterle loves Micaela Kelly.

Micaela Kelly considers Heather Oesterle a "sister."

But Oesterle, Central Michigan's second-year head coach, and Kelly, the Chippewas' star senior guard who's seventh in the nation in scoring, would've preferred not to be sitting next to each for so many crucial minutes in Sunday's NCAA Tournament game.

Central Michigan forward Kyra Bussell (50) tries to block a shot by Iowa forward Monika Czinano.

Kelly picked up a third foul with one minute left in the first quarter, costing her significant playing time as the Chippewas found themselves in a hole that proved too large to crawl out of in an 87-72 loss to Iowa in the first women's NCAA Tournament game in nearly two years, at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

"I thought that was the difference in the game, to be very honest," Oesterle said. "You take Micaela Kelly out of the game at this point in the season, that hurts us.

"I was hoping to have 'Twin' playing 35, 40 minutes today, and I felt like some of those fouls were a little cheap."

Central Michigan finishes 18-9 for the season, a season unlike any other — one that began without the Chippewas being able to use their gym amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so they improvised, went outside and shot on Gus Macker hoops.

BOX SCORE: Iowa 87, Central Michigan 72

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They still made a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and a second Mid-American Conference tournament title in the last three completed tournaments.

That doesn't necessarily soften the blow of a first-round exit, but it's hardly nothing.

"I'm super proud of this group," said Kelly, the former Detroit King star. "We overcame a lot of adversity, and to end the season the way we ended it, I can't be more proud."

When Central Michigan is rolling, it's because of Kelly and sophomore guard Molly Davis. Take one of them out, Oesterle said, and it's a tough hill to climb.

That was the case early Sunday, when Kelly went to the bench before the halfway point in the first quarter, came back out, and then went back again after running into an Iowa player earned her a third foul.

She actually came back in late in the half, with three fouls, and scored 14 for the half. She finished with 23 points on 7-for-14 shooting, 3-for-6 on 3-pointers. She never did pick up that fourth foul, but the third changed the whole complexion of the game.

"It affected our whole game plan from the start," Oesterle said.

Most notably, Kelly, an excellent defender, no longer could afford to guard Iowa's best player, Caitlin Clark, the nation's leading scorer and Big Ten freshman of the year.

Davis got that assignment much of the rest of the game, and did admirably, but Clark still finished with 23 points and seven assists.

"It's a game you have to respect," Davis said of Clark.

The No. 12 seed Chippewas trailed by as many as 16 in the first half but cut it to 11 by the end of the half thanks in part to Kelly's late presence. They came out strong in the third quarter, getting to within six points twice, once on a Kelly 3 and putback layup by senior forward Kyra Bussell, who grabbed her own rebound.

But the Hawkeyes responded, particularly forward McKenna Warnock. She had no points in the first half, 11 straight for Iowa in the second half, and finished with 13.

Iowa closed the third quarter on a 7-0 run to take a 65-52 lead.

Central Michigan guard Micaela Kelly (1) fights for a rebound with Iowa guard Kate Martin (20).

Central Michigan managed to get within 10 points in the fourth quarter, once on a Kelly drive to the basket, but that was quickly answered by Clark with a driving layup on the other end. Iowa, as expected given the size advantage, dominated in the point, outscoring Central Michigan, 42-26, though the Chippewas did hang in the rebounding department, particularly on the offensive end, a big point of emphasis coming into this one.

With Kelly on the floor for all but one minute in the second, Central Michigan only was outscored by four by Iowa.

"Well, it was frustrating," said Kelly, who barely sat down while she was on the bench in the first half, clapping, shouting, and even at one point telling Oesterle to stop slumping her shoulders, "but at the end of the day, I can't control the uncontrollablles

"I had to find a way to stay positive."

Davis, who looked worn out to Oesterle late after being tasked with running the offense and taking on the top defensive assignment, finished with 18 points, on 7-for-19 shooting, and Bussell, who battled injuries all year, had eight points and nine rebounds.

Monika Czinano added 23 and Kate Martin 13 for Iowa, which advances to face the Kentucky-Idaho State winner Tuesday.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984