By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Megan Gustafson already has been named the National Player of the Year for this season by one national media outlet.
She has young girls from all over the country who are trying to emulate her workout routine, and to be like Megan.
And she is arguably the greatest player in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program.
So from an individual standpoint, Gustafson has little left to accomplish as a Hawkeye.
But that is hardly the case from a team standpoint where Gustafson and her cohorts still are pursuing greatness.
Gustafson is just one win from leading the Iowa women’s basketball team to the Elite Eight for just the fourth time in school history, and for the first time since 1993.
She is also just one loss from having her incredible career come to an end.
And the opponent standing in the way from North Carolina State has a 27-5 record and will be playing barely one hour from its campus when the teams meet on Saturday in the NCAA Sweet 16 in Greensboro, N.C.
“Obviously, it’s in their state, they’ll probably have a good crowd, but that’s not going to phase us,” Gustafson said.
Iowa benefitted from having the largest home crowd in the women’s tournament for the first two rounds when over 22,000 fans packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena to watch victories over Mercer in the first round and Missouri in the second round.
The circumstance on Saturday will be a drastic change, but Gustafson embraces the challenge of trying to silence a home crowd.
“It’s always fun to go to opposing arenas in the Big Ten and quiet their crowds,” Gustafson. “So I think we’re going to have a fun time doing that this time around.”
Gustafson didn’t guarantee a victory or make any bold statements, but she spoke with confidence and with conviction.
She is determined to keep playing for as long as possible because of the potential reward, but also because of how much she enjoys being around her teammates and coaches.
The 6-foot-3 Gustafson is one of three senior starters for Iowa, and while she is clearly the star on the team, fellow seniors Tania Davis, a 5-3 point guard, and Hannah Stewart, a 6-2 power forward, also play key roles on the court and as leaders.
Davis directs the offense, while Stewart complements Gustafson on the frontline.
Davis also relishes the challenge of playing in what should be a hostile environment. Greensboro is considered a neutral sight, but that will hardly be the case on Saturday.
“I love playing at home, but I also love playing on the road,” said Davis, who overcame two season-ending knee injuries to reach this point. “Just to be able to silence crowds, and just to be able to make runs the way we do. I definitely think going on the road shows who we are as a team. Obviously, when we’re here, we have our crowd to rely upon on a little bit. But when we go on the road, not that many people are going to travel with us for every single game on the road, so to be able overcome adversity, and to be as close as we are and to be able to bounce back and battle back, I definitely think that road games are definitely a true testament of who we are as a team.”
This experience is new to all of the Iowa players, considering Iowa lost to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season and played in the WNIT in the two seasons before that.
“I think it is the focus and the sense of urgency that we have,” Gustafson said of the difference from a year ago. “This is my last shot of playing and I want to keep this going as long as I can.
“And we have three seniors who’ve been here for four years going through all kinds of different struggles and hard games and postseason runs and stuff. So I think that’s been helpful, just having that leadership and we’re just so excited. We just really want to keep playing with each other.”
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder praised her current squad for its business-like approach, for its togetherness and for its willingness to embrace the daily grind.
Bluder has had teams before that would need a break from the emotional grind, so she would schedule different activities in practice, including playing wiffle ball or dodge ball.
“This team, there has been none of that,” Bluder said. “They almost like embrace the grind. They want that. I think if I would bring that out with this team, they’d be like, `what the heck are you doing coach? We’ve got work to do.’
“So you’ve got to read your team. You’ve got to know the personalities, and the personality of this group is let’s get after it.”
Iowa will have to get after it against the Wolfpack, who featured one of the young rising stars in the women’s game in 6-5 freshman center Elissa Cunane, who averages 13.6 points per game and shoots nearly 60 percent from the field.
“I kind of see this matchup with Megan and her as kind of like the veteran versus the rookie,” Bluder said. “It’s kind of like the experience versus the next up-and-comer, great center in America. I think that she’s that good. She moves real well and she has more size than Megan.
“Her team looks for her very well. They feed her the ball real well, just like our players do.”
Gustafson has led the nation in scoring in each of the past two seasons, but she is hardly a solo act on offense.
Four of Iowa’s five starters average in double figures as scorers, and the one who doesn’t, junior guard Makenize Meyer, scored 16 and 18 points, respectively, in the first two NCAA Tournament games.
“It’s huge, especially in this postseason,” Gustafson said of Meyer’s impact. “She’s really hot right now, and she’s confident. And it’s been so helpful to have that. Especially give me a pressure release inside. I’m able to kick it out to Makenzie and she’s able to hit those shots. That really frustrated other tams because they think they have a game plan of just hanging out inside, but they can’t do that anymore.
"They have to pay attention to other things, especially on the perimeter. And that’s what makes us so hard to guard right now.”
Iowa vs. North Carolina State
When: Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
What: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game
Where: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.