By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – If Megan Gustafson isn’t the national player of the year for women’s basketball, then there should be an investigation as to why.
Nothing against the other candidates because there are some spectacular players from which to choose a national player of the year, but nobody checks more boxes than Iowa’s 6-foot-3 senior center.
Gustafson not only leads the nation in scoring and field-goal percentage, she is also ranked third nationally in rebounding, and as far as team success goes, Iowa defeated Northwestern 74-50 on Sunday to finish the regular season with records of 23-6 and 14-4 in the Big Ten.
So if you combine individual statistics with team success, Gustafson stands above the rest, and it’s really not even that close in my opinion.
Gustafson is the most dominant, the most efficient and the most consistent women’s player in the country, and has been for the past two seasons.
Gustafson has been a double-double machine while at Iowa despite facing constant double- and triple-teams on defense.
The Port Wing, Wis., native recorded her 82nd career double-double in scoring and rebounding in Sunday’s victory over Northwestern as she finished with 34 points and 12 rebounds.
Gustafson made 14-of-17 field-goal attempts overall and scored 28 points in the second half. It was a typical Gustafson performance in that she didn't hunt for shots, but instead let the game come to her. She was patient, poised and proficient.
Gustafson’s incredible run of consistency can be supported by the fact that she has been honored by the Big Ten Conference each week this season, including 12 Player of the Week honors.
They might as well just name the award after Gustafson because it’s only news when she doesn’t win it.
I wrote a column several weeks ago in which I called Gustafson the greatest player in the history of the Iowa women’s program, and that’s saying a lot, considering Iowa’s rich tradition.
I was reluctant to put Gustafson ahead of former All-America guard Michelle “Ice” Edwards until about midway through this season. Edwards was a spectacular player under C. Vivian Stringer in the 1980s, but Edwards wasn’t as dominant as Gustafson has been from a statistical standpoint.
Gustafson has made the spectacular seem almost routine. An off night for her would be a career night for a lot of players.
Sunday’s game was her final regular-season game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but probably not her last game on Iowa’s home-court.
There is a very good chance that Iowa will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament since it entered Sunday’s game ranked seventh in RPI.
Gustafson will have her jersey No. 10 retired at a later date because Sunday’s game wasn’t the right circumstance to focus solely on one player, even if that one player is already a legend.
Sunday’s game was all about Iowa’s three seniors, which in addition to Gustafson, include point guard Tania Davis and forward Hannah Stewart.
The 5-3 Davis has stayed the course despite having suffered two season-ending knee injuries as a Hawkeye. The offense is built around Gustafson, but Davis sets the tone on offense.
"Hawk fans have been behind me, even when I was injured," Davis said after Sunday's game.
Fans have used social media to support Davis during her tough times, and she thanked those fans on Sunday for giving her inspiration.
"They keep me going," Davis said of the messages on Twitter and Instagram. "They helped me get through my surgeries, so I felt it was only right that I had to pay them back and go out and give my all this season.".
Iowa’s three seniors combined for 53 points in Sunday’s game, and each received a standing ovation from the fans and a hug from Iowa coach Lisa Bluder as they left the game late in the fourth quarter.
Sunday’s victory improved Iowa’s record to 15-0 at home this season.
"When you play in Carver, it's just different," Stewart said. "It's like having a sixth man on the court with you."
Iowa then held an emotional Senior Day ceremony after the game in which Bluder gushed over her three seniors and thanked the fans for their support.
Sunday’s game drew a season-high attendance of 12,051, and many of the fans came to pay tribute to the three seniors.
“First of all, what I have to do is thank the Hawkeye fans that came out today,” Bluder said. “It was an amazing crowd and environment. And these three (seniors) deserved it. To go undefeated on your home-court and during the Big Ten season and nonconference season, I think that’s an amazing accomplishment.
“Certainly, we would have loved to win the Big Ten, but to finish outright second in this tough of a conference is another good accomplishment. And these three seniors deserve to have that kind of send-off today. I’m so proud of them, what they’ve accomplished in the last four years. They’ve left their imprint on our program, there is no doubt about it.”
Iowa finished second behind Maryland in the Big Ten, but Gustafson and her cohorts also defeated Maryland during the regular season.
The three seniors stayed at Carver-Hawkeye Arena long after Sunday’s game to mingle with fans, to sign autographs and pose for photos.
"This place is so special," Gustafson said. "The crowd just keeps you going, especially in those tough games whenever we have them.
"We've had some incredible memories on this court and we definitely want to keep it going. So we're going to keep fighting like crazy to get that host seed.".
The Big Ten Tournament now awaits the Hawkeyes followed by a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Gustafson should be a unanimous pick for Big Ten Player of the Year, which will be announced this coming week, and then who knows after that.
The voting for national player of the year is influenced by a regional bias, so it’s hard to know for sure how Gustafson will do in different parts of the country.
But if the voters would just take a close look at Gustafson’s statistics, her consistency and her team’s success, they should see an obvious choice for national player of the year.
Her 82 career double-doubles rank sixth all-time in the history of women's college basketball and she needs three more to move into fourth place.
But Gustafson would be the first to say that she couldn't have become a star without the help of her teammates and coaches.
She is as humble as she is talented.
Tania Davis was asked this past week if Gustafson was a better player or teammate and Davis didn't hesitate to say teammate.
That's quite a compliment, considering Gustafson's dominance as a player.