By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – They come from three different states.
They play three different positions.
And they have three distinctly different personalities.
But as teammates, Megan Gustafson, Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart are similar in so many ways with how they lead by example, how they always put the team first and by how they demand respect.
The three seniors are the heart and soul of the Iowa women’s basketball team, which will face Missouri on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
Win or lose, it’ll be the last appearance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for Iowa’s three seniors, and that is bittersweet because Iowa’s home court has been where so many of their dreams have come true.
“I've thought about it a little bit,” Gustafson said Saturday. “I think I'm just going to go into it like any other game, preparing for it and not really wanting to think about that. But at the same time I'm going to play my heart out and I know my teammates are, and it's going to be a lot more sweeter when we get a win, and so then it won't be as sad not having to play in Carver anymore.”
Gustafson is arguably the greatest player in program history, but she’d be the first to say that her teammates, especially Davis and Stewart, have played a key role in her ascent to stardom.
Iowa’s three seniors complement each other so well on and off the court.
The 6-foot-3 Gustafson is the overpowering force in the middle, a double-double waiting to happen and a star almost since the day she arrived on campus from tiny Port Wing, Wis.
"I've run out of ways to describe that kid,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said of Gustafson, who led the nation in scoring and field-goal percentage as a junior and senior. “But I know she's been one of the easiest stars I've ever coached. She's been one of the most — the least drama kids that I've ever coached. She's given me no issues whatsoever. She's an absolute joy.
“You know, she deserves to go out of here with a win, and that's what we're going to hope to give her tomorrow, although we know it's going to be very difficult.”
Davis is at least a foot shorter than Gustafson, but Davis is small in size only.
A native of Flint, Mich., Davis is Iowa’s floor general as the starting point guard. She directs the offense and acts as a stabilizer on both ends of the floor.
Davis is also resilient and tough as evident by her having overcome two season-ending knee injuries.
Davis could’ve said the heck with playing after the second knee injury, but the game and being a Hawkeye meant too much for her to give it up.
“It's been said so many times, but what she's meant to our team as far as her resilience, her just amazing way to bounce back after (two knee injuries) and to continue to go through the grind just so that she can put a Hawkeye uniform on when she could have copped out on that,” Bluder said of Davis. “She could have just given up and just taken her scholarship, but she wanted to represent Iowa. She wanted to play in this NCAA Tournament so badly. So I love it for her.”
The 6-2 Stewart, who is from Minot, N.D., is different than her two senior teammates in that she had to wait before making a significant impact.
Stewart only scored five points during her entire freshman season and she didn’t make her first career start until this season after she had won the job at power forward during preseason practice.
“And for Hannah, just having such a different path than Megan and Tania in that she didn't play much as a freshman, and a lot of kids bail on that,” Bluder said. “A lot of kids don't stick around if they're not getting the minutes; they're hitting the road. She didn't. She loved the University of Iowa. She knew she could get better. She kept a positive attitude. She was voted a captain last year, and even as a junior she didn't have a starting role, but she excelled coming in at (forward) and (center) and backing up both of those positions.
“So coming into this year and having a starting position, being rewarded for all that positive energy, just amazing. Again, you couldn't script it any better.”
Iowa’s three seniors hope to keep adding to that script by defeating a tough and determined Missouri team on Sunday.
The Tigers also have a talented senior class led by 6-1 guard Sophie Cunningham, and they’re just like Iowa’s seniors in that they want to keep playing for as long as possible.
“I mean this is what I want,” Cunningham said Saturday. “I think it's what every team wants. So it's definitely going to be a battle. It's going to be a great game.”
Iowa avoided becoming the first No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 seed in the women’s tournament by edging Mercer 66-61 in the first round on Friday.
The Hawkeyes won despite committing 24 turnovers and despite having zero bench points.
“We just have to make smarter decisions with the ball and be more confident and be stronger with the ball,” Davis said.
Davis said it’s crazy to think that Sunday’s game will be her last at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“It’s been one heck of a ride, the highs and the lows,” Davis said.
Stewart will try to block out the sentimental part of Sunday’s game because she wants to focus solely on the task at hand.
Iowa (27-6) is one victory from making the Sweet 16 for just the second time in 19 seasons under Bluder.
“We’re just going to focus on playing with this team because we love it so much and want to play every game we can with them,” Stewart said.