Iowa Women's Basketball

Iowa women's basketball exceeded expectations, and now the expectations rise

Hawkeyes capable of Big Ten championship, Sweet 16 in 2018-19

Iowa’s Megan Gustafson (10) reaches for a rebound over Indiana’s Tyra Buss (3) during their game Feb. 24. Gustafson, a consensus all-American after averaging 25.7 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, returns for her senior season in 2018-19. The Hawkeyes return 86.4 percent of their scoring for next season, and expectations will be high. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa’s Megan Gustafson (10) reaches for a rebound over Indiana’s Tyra Buss (3) during their game Feb. 24. Gustafson, a consensus all-American after averaging 25.7 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, returns for her senior season in 2018-19. The Hawkeyes return 86.4 percent of their scoring for next season, and expectations will be high. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Here’s the epitaph on the 2017-18 Iowa women’s basketball season:

The Hawkeyes overcame a short roster and injuries. They exceeded expectations and returned to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence. They played a joyous, unselfish, entertaining brand of basketball.

“They were awesome to coach. They were positive, they were enthusiastic every day,” Coach Lisa Bluder said after Saturday’s 76-70 first-round loss to Creighton. “This is a group I really like to coach and I’m going to remember them that way and I’m going to remember them because of the grit they have.”

More than anything, 2017-18 was The Winter of Gustafson.

Junior post Megan Gustafson blossomed into a consensus all-American, constructing the best individual season the program has ever seen. A 6-foot-3 native from extreme northern Wisconsin, Gustafson averaged 25.7 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, shooting 67.1 percent from the floor.

It was enough to earn Big Ten player-of-the-year honors from the media.

“Megan, I think, is one of the best posts in America,” Bluder said, correctly.

After two years of languishing in the WNIT, the Hawkeyes bounced back this season with a 24-8 mark. They started 14-1 before injuries cut into an already small roster.

Tania Davis suffered a torn ACL for the second time in two seasons, at Northern Iowa in the 12th game of the season. Makenzie Meyer suffered a broken bone in her left (non-shooting) hand as the Big Ten season was set to begin. She missed six games.

Iowa suffered through a stretch in which it lost four of five games and sat at 4-5 in the Big Ten when Chase Coley hit what ended up being the shot that ultimately turned the Hawkeyes’ season back around.

Her bucket from the left baseline beat Michigan State in overtime at East Lansing, and the Hawkeyes went on to win their last seven regular-season games. Their 11-5 league mark placed them in a third-place tie in the Big Ten.

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Iowa beat Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, then lost to Minnesota, 90-89, in the quarterfinals despite a 48-point explosion by Gustafson.

And that brings us to a dilemma the Hawkeyes must rectify if they want to play deeper into March next season. And great as Gustafson is, she can’t carry them alone.

In Iowa’s wins, she averaged 24.4 points and 13.7 field-goal attempts. In the losses, those numbers rose to 29.8 and 18.6.

“We need more people to be involved than just Megan,” Bluder said after Iowa lost to Purdue Jan. 13 despite a 37-point, 14-rebound performance by Gustafson. “It can’t just be the Megan Show.”

Bluder bids farewell to Coley, who averaged 8.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in a nice bounce-back season after a disappointing junior campaign. Redshirt junior Carly Mohns also will depart after a career slowed by knee injuries.

Led by Gustafson, the Hawkeyes return 86.4 percent of their scoring load for next year. Only two teams in the Big Ten (second-division squads Penn State and Illinois) return more.

Hannah Stewart (7.3 ppg) is the likely starter alongside Gustafson on the front line. Like Gustafson, she’ll be a senior. The three backcourt slots will be some combination of Davis (assuming she’s healthy), Kathleen Doyle, Makenzie Meyer and Alexis Sevillian.

Before Davis’ injury, Iowa was No. 1 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. By the end of the season, the Hawkeyes had slid to 20th at 1.33-to-1.

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“It breaks my heart that Tania (couldn’t) be a part of this (NCAA run),” Bluder said. “After Tania got hurt, it could have been easy to say, ‘Oh well, wait until next year.’”

The Hawkeyes averaged 16.2 turnovers per game, which ranked 213th of the 349 Division-I teams. That’s not good enough.

Amanda Ollinger progressed and earned quality minutes this season, and was usually on the floor at key late-game stretches during Iowa’s end-of-season win streak. Freshman walk-on Zion Sanders was valuable enough to earn a scholarship.

The Hawkeyes will add four freshmen to the roster — Logan Cook (6-1 forward, Iowa City West), Monika Czinano (6-3 forward, Watertown, Minn.), Kate Martin (6-foot guard, Edwardsville, Ill.) and Tomi Taiwo (5-9 guard, Carmel, Ind.).

Iowa surpassed expectations this season. Expectations will rise dramatically for 2018-19. Youth is no longer an excuse.

“It’s going to be my last year, and I’m going to be really excited to make a run,” Gustafson said Saturday. “I think just having this experience in the NCAA is huge. For most of us, this is our first time, and we definitely want to come get back next year to make some noise.”

If Davis returns healthy, the Hawkeyes enter next season as no worse than a co-favorite with Maryland to claim the Big Ten title, which would be Iowa’s first since 2008. Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota also could challenge. Pencil the Hawkeyes as a top-20 team to start next season. Maybe top-15.

Gustafson ranks sixth in career scoring (1,803 points) and second in career rebounds (979) at Iowa. Barring injury, she’ll rank No. 1 all-time in both categories by a large margin for a long, long time.

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Only one more Winter of Gustafson remains. Anything less than a Sweet 16 ending would be sour, indeed.

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.