By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – A game in which the two winningest head coaches in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program faced each other would normally be the main storyline.
But there is nothing normal about Iowa center Megan Gustafson as she showed again on Wednesday by leading the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes to a 72-66 over No. 14 Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The 6-foot-3 Gustafson scored 32 points and grabbed 12 rebounds while playing almost 35 minutes against one of the most aggressive defensive teams in the country. She made 13-of-16 field-goal attempts while recording her 18th double-double of the season and the 73rd of her illustrious career.
She also made quite an impression on Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer, as did the Iowa guards for how they assisted Gustafson on offense.
“I think Iowa’s guards are outstanding,” said Stringer, who was the Iowa head coach from 1983 to 1995. “They shoot the ball extremely well. They work with precision and they understand how to hit the big girl. And I feel like she is truly the best center in the country bar none.
“And I think coach (Lisa Bluder) has the team playing with the exact confidence that is necessary for her to play like she is. The beautiful part of it is that she did everything on both sides of the floor. We had no answer for her. None.”
Iowa improved to 15-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten, while Rutgers fell to 7-1 in the conference and 15-4 overall.
A loss would have dropped Iowa three games behind Rutgers in the Big Ten standings. But now Iowa is just one game behind in the conference standings with 10 conference games remaining.
“It is a pretty happy locker room,” said Lisa Bluder, who won for the 382nd time as the Iowa head coach. “That was a really good win against a good opponent. We looked good. Our team has worked really hard and has stayed focused. They were locked in.
“We took the lead in the second quarter, and we were never going to give it up after that point.”
Iowa scored 10 consecutive points in the second quarter, turning a 26-21 deficit into a 31-26 lead.
Rutgers evened the score at 33-33, but would never lead again.
Iowa took advantage of Rutgers committing 26 fouls by making 19-of-25 free throw attempts.
Gustafson and junior guard Makenzie Meyer both made two free throws in the final 13.2 seconds to secure the victory.
“It’s a pretty big win for us,” Gustafson said. “We are kind of in the race for the top spot. It’s huge, especially since it is our lone meeting with them. That was very, very critical.
“It was a fun win. I believed in my teammates and they believed in me. And we just have to keep that momentum going.”
Stringer made Iowa relevant in women’s basketball by taking a program that had just two winning seasons before she arrived in 1983 and turning it into a national power.
She won 269 games in 12 seasons at Iowa, along with five Big Ten titles.
The high point under Stringer came in 1993 when Iowa advanced to the NCAA Final Four for the only time in program history.
But she also dealt with personal tragedy while at Iowa when her husband, Bill Stringer, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving in 1992.
Stringer was devastated by the sudden loss of her husband and that proved to be the beginning of the end of her time at Iowa.
She resigned after the 1994-95 season to become the head coach at Rutgers and has been there ever since.
Stringer made an mmediate impact at Rutgers, turning the once-proud program into a national power. And she did it just like she did at Iowa by recruiting talented players from all over the country, and by stressing in-your-face defense.
The Scarlet Knights still play in-your-face defense, but Gustafson still managed to score 32 points on just 16 shots from the field
“She doesn’t drop the ball and she knows exactly where to post up,” Stringer said of Gustafson. “She can blindly hit those shots.”
Gustafson would be the first to say that she is hardly a solo act on offense, but there are times when she seems to be Iowa’s first, second and third option on offense, like at the start of Wednesday’s game for example when she scored Iowa’s first 13 points.
She finished the first half with 18 points and Iowa led 35-33 at the break.
Gustafson scored the first points in the third quarter on a drive to the basket that started with her making a nifty head fake that left her defender looking in the wrong direction.
Doyle and Meyer also scored in double figures for Iowa with 17 and 11 points, respectively. Doyle also played more than 38 minutes, which is just fine with her.
“As long as they need me, I’m in there,” Doyle said.
Senior forward Hannah Stewart also played a key role down the stretch by making a basket that expanded Iowa's lead to 65-62 with 1:27 remaining. She also had a steal and blocked a shot in the closing minutes, and played solid defense throughout the game.
Wednesday’s game marked the first time this season that Rutgers has allowed at least 70 points in a game.
Iowa also had 19 assists on 24 baskets and only committed 12 turnovers.
“They played Iowa basketball and they didn’t let Rutgers get us out of what we wanted to do,” Bluder said. “And I’m just really proud of our team’s effort.”