Iowa honors Megan Gustafson with emotional come-from-behind victory before retiring her jersey No. 10
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Any loyal fan base loves greatness, especially when it comes wrapped in humility, graciousness and high character.
That’s why 13,420 fans packed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday afternoon to honor arguably the greatest player in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program.
Megan Gustafson was back in town and had her jersey No. 10 retired during an emotional ceremony that came just minutes after the current Iowa team had battled back in the fourth quarter to defeat Michigan State 74-57 before the second largest home crowd in 20 seasons under head coach Lisa Bluder
“I think it was everything and more,” Gustafson said of the ceremony. “Just being able to come back, it’s pretty surreal being in front of that crowd and listening to them. They brought the energy today and really pushed this team to win today, which is really cool to be a part of.
“But that ceremony afterwards, obviously, I was crying a lot and got emotional just because this university means so much to me, and this program and the girls and these coaches, just everything. They mean so much to me and they really shaped me into the person I am today.”
Iowa’s 32nd consecutive home win helped to set a perfect stage for Gustafson to be honored because the streak started with her leading the way as a stat-sheet stuffing 6-foot-3 center.
It probably is fair to say we’ll never see the likes of Gustafson again at Iowa. She's a once-in-a-lifetime player who fit perfectly in the team-first Hawkeye culture under Lisa Bluder.
In addition to earning consensus National Player of the Year honors last season, Gustafson also led Iowa to the NCAA Elite for just the third time in program history.
Her dominance helped Iowa climb to elite status, and that is the ultimate sign of a winner, making your team and those around you better.
“We had to win for Megan, right,” Bluder said. “We didn’t want to be spoilers tonight. We’re so proud of Megan and what she’s done for our program. It was just great for her to be honored, not just with the jersey retirement, but with us playing a good game, especially that fourth quarter. We needed to do that and the crowd was absolutely amazing today.”
Gustafson was part of a senior triumvirate last season, along with point guard Tania Davis and power forward Hannah Stewart that helped pave the way to greatness.
Davis and Stewart were among a number of former Iowa players and teammates who made video tributes to Gustafson on Sunday.
Former Hawkeye All-America guard Michelle Edwards also made a video tribute in which she congratulated Gustafson for joining her as the only Iowa women’s players to have their jersey number retired.
Gustafson wiped away tears throughout the ceremony, but she started crying when her banner was lifted to the roof of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“That’s kind of when it hit me, I think,” Gustafson said. “The whole day was just pretty busy. My mind was kind of spinning enjoying the game and stuff like that. But just seeing it unravel and seeing my number going up and them listing off everything and the music, it just kind of hit me then that this is real and that I was able to accomplish this dream that I had.”
There was no jealously or resentment with Gustafson getting most of the spotlight as a player, because for one, she deserved it with her dominance, but also because Gustafson never felt entitled or above her teammates. The team always came first with Gustafson and that was obvious with how well connected she and her teammates were on and off the court.
Gustafson also has become a role model for young girls across the country. Her improbable rise to stardom from a tiny town in Wisconsin now serves as inspiration and shows that anything is possible if you have a dream and work hard to achieve it.
“To be able to be a role model for other people, especially those that come from a small town like me, that they can accomplish those kinds of dreams just with a lot of hard work and a lot of great people around you,” Gustafson said. “You can really accomplish anything that you want to.”
As for Sunday’s game, Iowa outscored Michigan State 28-9 during the fourth quarter.
Freshman McKenna Warnock came off the bench to score a career-high 22 points, while senior guard Kathleen Doyle finished with 20 points, seven steals, six rebounds and five assists.
Warnock’s contribution helped to compensate for the loss of sophomore center Monika Czinano, who sprained her right ankle early in the third quarter and didn’t return.
There was a moment in the fourth quarter when Doyle, after making a basket and drawing a foul, looked over and pointed to Gustafson who was sitting in the front row.
“It was great just seeing their fight,” Gustafson said. “They fought so hard, especially after Monika went down. They needed somebody to step up and McKenna did a great job of stepping up, I think. But the whole team did. They came together. They rallied.
“Me and Kathleen shared a little moment when she had an and-one. She pointed and I pointed back at her. So that was really special. They’re re just doing so well. They are shattering everyone’s expectations and the culture and chemistry is the same from last year and that’s why they’re doing so well. And I’m so proud of them.”
Gustafson is currently playing professional basketball in Hungary, but her presence will always be felt in Iowa City.
She left behind a group of Iowa players who cherished being her teammate, but who also were determined to show that they could have success without her.
And so far that is mission accomplished as Iowa has won eight games in a row and is 17-3 overall and in first place in the Big Ten at 8-1.
Bluder talked after Sunday’s victory about the challenge of moving on without last year’s seniors.
“I could not be more proud of these young women,” Bluder said. “They have continued to work hard, fight, get better and not focus on last year, but focus on moving forward. We’re moving forward.
“We don’t ever look back. We love Megan. We honored her today. But even at the beginning of this year, it was never, ‘oh, we wish we still had Megan, or thinking of Hannah or Tania. It was never that. It was move forward, move forward. And I think this team has done a remarkable job of doing that.”
Doyle said the current players were confident that they could have success, even without arguably the greatest player in program history leading the way.
“We had a really good year last year, so I think it magnified it, but every team graduates seniors and you’ve got to step up,” Doyle said. “I think everyone else was more concerned about it than we were just because we knew it was coming. We knew what group we were going to have working. And we were the only ones in the gym in the offseason knowing how hard we were working.
“Like coach Bluder said, we moved on. Obviously, we loved them, but I think the outside was more concerned about them graduating than we were.”