GREENSBORO, N.C. — Through the tears, Megan Gustafson spoke with honesty and perspective.
Despite Monday’s loss to Baylor in the NCAA regional finals, Gustafson believed the Iowa Hawkeyes maximized their potential, reached their ceiling.
“Honestly, yeah, I think so,” the All-American senior center said. “It would have been great to make the Final Four and shock the women’s basketball world, sure.
“But in reality, we reached about every goal we could.”
When the Hawkeyes met the media way back in October, two missions were shared:
First, a Big Ten championship. Second, a deep run in the NCAA Tournament — Sweet 16, at least. Elite Eight, perhaps.
Done, and done.
The Hawkeyes (29-7) fell one game short of a regular-season Big Ten crown, finishing 14-4 (Maryland was 15-3). But they did claim the Big Ten tournament title in Indianapolis, capping it with a 90-76 victory over the Terrapins.
Then came the NCAA Tournament.
Seeded No. 2 — its highest seed since 1996 — Iowa survived a dud in the first round, rallying from a fourth-quarter deficit to survive Mercer, 66-61. The Hawkeyes handled Missouri, 68-52, in the second round to advance to Greensboro.
Here, they whipped North Carolina State, 79-61, before No. 1 Baylor was simply too much in an 85-53 regional-final rout.
Realistically, what more could they have done?
“It’s really hard to think big picture when it doesn’t end like you want,” Kathleen Doyle said. “But it was a really special year. A Big Ten championship ... we took our coaches to the Elite Eight ... I'm proud I got to be a part of this.”
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Gustafson was the anchor to this team, scoring 1,001 points this season and finishing a remarkable career with 2,804 points and 1,459 rebounds, both of which rank in the top 25 in NCAA Division-I history. Her 88 double-doubles are No. 4 on the all-time chart.
Add 1,007 points by Tania Davis and 808 by Hannah Stewart, and this is the most productive senior class in school history, with 4,619 points. The 2015 trio of Samantha Logic, Melissa Dixon and Bethany Doolittle finished with 4,379.
“It’s been a dream come true,” Stewart said. “Basketball brought us together, but it’s the relationships that I’ll remember, hopefully forever.
“Megan and Tania are two of the greatest people I’ve ever met. Makenzie (Meyer) and Doyle are two of my best friends.
“It’s hard to think that it’s all ending.”
Davis will be remembered as the tough dynamo who came back from two torn ACLs, Stewart as the two-year captain whose patience eventually paid off, Gustafson as the small-town girl who struck it bigger than anyone could have ever dreamed, doing it with quiet self-confidence and a humble heart.
There was plenty to like about all three. Players only get four years of eligibility, though, and theirs has come to an end.
Coach Lisa Bluder was asked how the Hawkeyes can sustain the level they’ve now achieved.
“I think it all begins with recruiting,” she said. “The culture is there. People want to play with the type of women we have on our team.
“But as positive as our culture is, it comes down to getting athletes.”
Iowa loses 62.5 percent of its scoring, the most of any team in the Big Ten (Ohio State is next at 54.7 percent). With the departure of Gustafson and Stewart, the Hawkeyes’ identity in 2019-20 shifts to the perimeter.
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Seniors-to-be Doyle and Meyer are returning starters, and it’s a good bet that Alexis Sevillian will join them on the perimeter.
Monika Czinano was a serviceable backup to Gustafson this season as a freshman, and her role will be greatly increased next season. Amanda Ollinger probably has the inside track to the other starting spot, though incoming freshman McKenna Warnock — named Miss Wisconsin Basketball — could vie for that spot, as could Kate Martin, a freshman who redshirted after suffering a torn ACL last summer.
Those two headline the list of 2019-20 rookies, joining Gabbie Marshall and Megan Meyer (younger sister of Makenzie Meyer).
“I’m really looking forward to having Megan here,” Makenzie said. “Next year, we’re all going to try to carry on the chemistry that the seniors established.”
The Hawkeyes were bold in Sweet 16-or-bust talk in October, and they more than delivered. Expectations, at least those of the external variety, won’t be as high next season.
Maryland will be a heavy favorite in the Big Ten, then there’s a big gap. Purdue might be the primary challenger, maybe Indiana or Michigan State.
Break-even or better in the Big Ten would be a good season for the Hawkeyes. A third straight NCAA Tournament, a reasonable and reachable goal. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
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