IOWA CITY — They were close friends. They were deep reserves.
They were The Dakotans.
As freshmen on the University of Iowa women’s basketball team, Hannah Stewart (hometown: Minot, N.D.) and Tagyn Larson (Sioux Falls, S.D.) combined for 37 minutes of floor time. They registered a total of five points — all by Stewart.
“It was hard, not playing much,” Stewart said.
Larson left after that first season, two years ago, transferring to South Dakota State.
“The coaches told me that my time was going to come,” Stewart said. “I’m thankful to still be here. I’ve having a blast.”
Stewart isn’t a superstar. She’s not even a starter, even though Coach Lisa Bluder said, “she would be for most teams.”
Instead, she’s a valuable post piece for the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes (15-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten), who host Purdue (11-7, 2-2) in a women’s basketball game Saturday.
Tipoff is 3 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Now a junior, Stewart didn’t say whether she considered following Larson out the door following the 2015-16 season, in which the Hawkeyes finished 17-14 and lost in the first round of the WNIT.
Bluder said, “When somebody doesn’t play, it’s always a possibility (that she will leave). You have to stay patient, and patience isn’t always something that everybody has.”
Stewart’s role increased last year, and she became a valuable backup in the paint behind Megan Gustafson and Chase Coley. She played in all 34 games, averaging 4.9 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
This year, she’s at 7.3 points and 5.2 boards per contest.
“Everybody can see how valuable she is to this team,” Bluder said.
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Valuable enough that she is a co-captain, along with sophomore guard Kathleen Doyle. Despite injuries to Doyle (ankle, brief), Tania Davis (knee, season-ending) and Makenzie Meyer (hand, current), the Hawkeyes are off to their best 17-game start since 1995-96.
“We’ve got to keep moving on. We’ve got to keep playing to our strengths,” Stewart said. “We’re short on numbers, but this is a team ... I guess it’s just because we all love basketball.
“We’re 11 very different people. We’re not the best of friends. We’re not all going to be maids of honors at each other’s wedding. But we have that mentality in which we’re all meshing the right way.”
She pointed to Gustafson, who has blossomed into a legitimate all-American candidate, as an example.
“Some people would be jealous of Megan, but we’re not,” Stewart said. “And it’s because of the kind of person that Megan is. She does a tremendous job with the attention she gets, and projects it to the team.”
Gustafson is averaging 22.7 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. She is shooting 68.8 percent from the floor and is a five-time Big Ten player of the week this season.
As always, Purdue’s identity is its defense, which was on full display in a 47-33 win over No. 21 Rutgers on Wednesday. The Boilermakers are averaging a modest 65.1 points per game, but allowing just 59.3.
Andreona Keys is one of four Boilers averaging in double figures, at 13.2 points per game.
Iowa hasn’t played since Sunday’s 84-71 win at Illinois.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Bluder said. “We’re down in numbers, so we can use all the energy we can muster.”
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