By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa junior center Megan Gustafson seems almost too good to be true, both on and off the basketball court.
Gustafson is as humble as she is talented, according to her teammates. And when your best player earns that kind of respect and admiration, it can lead to something special, both for Gustafson and her team.
The Iowa women’s basketball team is in the midst of something special as nearly 7,000 fans watched the Hawkeyes defeat a red-hot Indiana squad 75-62 on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
In addition to winning its seventh game in a row and finishing 7-0 in the month of February, Iowa also ended Indiana’s eight-game winning streak and finished the regular season 23-6 overall and 11-5 in the Big Ten.
Iowa’s two seniors, forwards Chase Coley and Carly Mohns, were honored after the game as part of the Senior Day festivities, and Gustafson did her part to make sure it was a happy occasion by scoring 36 points and grabbing 15 rebounds during the game.
“She makes some amazing finishes and it’s fun to watch,” Coley said of the 6-foot-3 Gustafson. “It’s like, yeah, she’s my teammate.”
Saturday’s game marked the seventh time this season that Gustafson has scored at least 33 points and it was her ninth-straight game with 25-plus points. It also was her ninth game of at least 15 rebounds.
Gustafson was hardly a solo act, though, as Iowa coach Lisa Bluder pointed out to the media after the game.
The Hawkeyes had four players who scored in double figures, they dished out 21 assists and had a 43-31 advantage on the boards. Iowa also had four players who finished with at least four rebounds and five who had at least three assists.
“Even though, yes, Megan is All-American, this is a team and she’d be the first one to tell you that; that everybody is important on our team,” Bluder said.
Everybody has to be important on this Iowa team due to a depleted roster.
Starting point guard Tania Davis suffered her second season-ending knee injury in mid-December, while redshirt freshman guard Alexis Sevillian missed Saturday’s game because of the flu.
Guards Makenize Meyer and Kathleen Doyle both played 40 minutes on Saturday and combined for nine assists and 17 points.
“We were prepared for it because we’ve been battling through injuries and illnesses all year, so we were ready to go,” Meyer said. “I think the only thing that changed is I had to play a couple more minutes. I think we did a good filling in for her today.”
Iowa proved that it was ready to go by bolting to a 20-5 lead, thanks largely to Gustafson, who scored her team’s first eight points and finished with 12 in the first quarter.
Indiana made the first basket in the game and led 2-0, but the Hoosiers never would lead again.
“I thought this was another great Iowa game,” Bluder said. “We came out and had a good first quarter.
“We talked about coming out and establishing ourselves and we’ve done that in all of February.”
The Hoosiers started the second quarter with a 9-1 scoring run and cut the deficit to four points at 21-17 on Amanda Cahill’s 3-point basket with 7 minutes, 17 seconds left in the quarter.
But then Iowa answered with a 3-pointer from Meyer with 6:34 left in the quarter, expanding the lead back to seven points.
The Hawkeyes spent the rest of the second quarter building on the lead, which reached 18 points (42-24) at halftime. Iowa led by as much as 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“That was a big three, and honestly, when she shoots the ball I believe it’s going in every single time,” Bluder said of Meyer, a sophomore from Mason City. “I really do have that much confidence in her, that much belief in her. But that was pretty big.”
Gustafson and her teammates are a joy to watch because they play with so much trust, passion and cohesiveness.
Even with a star like Gustafson, the whole still is better than the parts with this Iowa team.
“Number ten (Gustafson) had a great game like she always does,” Bluder said. “If she doesn’t get everybody’s all-Big Ten award, I just don’t understand. I don’t understand what people are looking at. This is not a career award. This is this season’s award and I think she’s very deserving of that.
“But we had four people in double figures today. We had twenty-one assists. Megan does not get those baskets without her teammates delivering passes for her.”
Bluder, obviously, is biased, but it’s hard to argue against Gustafson for Big Ten Player of the Year, considering she leads the nation in scoring and is fifth in rebounding.
Combine her individual exploits with Iowa’s success as a team and Gustafson’s case gets even stronger.
“She’s just incredible to play with,” Coley said.
Iowa is fortunate that its star player feels no sense of entitlement. Gustafson almost seemed embarrassed as Coley and Meyer gushed over her during the post-game press conference.
“Off the court, obviously, just how humble she is, that speaks to her personality so much,” Meyer said of Gustafson. “She’s a great teammate. She’s a real fun person to be around.”
Iowa now waits to see where it’ll be seeded in the Big Ten Tournament, which will be held next Wednesday through Sunday in Indianapolis.
The Hawkeyes would earn a fourth seed and a double bye if Illinois defeats Minnesota on Sunday. The lowest Iowa would be seeded is fifth in the tournament.
With this team, though, it doesn’t seem to matter where it'll be seeded because the players embrace each challenge that comes their way and they respect all of their opponents.
"February has been a great month for us,” Gustafson said. “Yeah, the schedule seemed a little bit easier, but everyone in the Big Ten, they’re good, really good teams. It doesn’t matter if it’s Maryland or Illinois. Everyone is going to give everyone their best shot.
“It looks easy on paper. But we had a lot of close games and we battled and we finished. So I’m really proud of this team that we were able to have a great February and it really gives us a lot of momentum going into the Big Ten Tournament.”