2019 NCAA TOURNAMENT

Hannah Stewart stuck it out, stuck around and is reaping the benefits with Iowa women's basketball

She considered an exit after a bench-filled freshman season, and has developed into a leader and productive post complement to Megan Gustafson

Iowa’s Hannah Stewart twirls part of the net after cutting it off Sunday, following the Hawkeyes’ 68-52 win over Missouri in an NCAA women’s basketball second-round game. The Hawkeyes face North Carolina State in a semifinal at the Greensboro Regional on Saturday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa’s Hannah Stewart twirls part of the net after cutting it off Sunday, following the Hawkeyes’ 68-52 win over Missouri in an NCAA women’s basketball second-round game. The Hawkeyes face North Carolina State in a semifinal at the Greensboro Regional on Saturday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Whitney Jennings and Tagyn Larson departed in 2016. Christina Buttenham and Bre Cera followed in 2017.

It was more than a fleeting thought in Hannah Stewart’s mind that she might join the exodus of the University of Iowa women’s basketball program.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind,” Stewart said Wednesday. “I didn’t play much as a freshman, and it was tough.”

Here are Stewart’s statistics from her freshman season of 2015-16: 27 minutes, five points, eight rebounds.

Stewart wanted to contribute more, whether it was at Iowa or somewhere else. There were some heart-to-hearts with Tania Davis during and after the season.

“We had built a good relationship our freshman year,” Davis said. “(Larson) made her decision (to transfer to South Dakota State), and Hannah told me she was considering leaving, too.

“I wanted her to stay the course. More than anything, I didn’t want one of my best friends to go.”

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Stewart stayed, and her incremental improvement — from deep substitute, to contributor off the bench, then team captain, and now a starter and productive complement to Megan Gustafson in the paint — has been a major reason that the Hawkeyes got out of their wheels-spinning mode of 2015-16 and 2016-17.

The eighth-ranked Hawkeyes (28-6) will try to extend a memorable season Saturday, when they face No. 10 North Carolina State (28-5) in a Greensboro Region semifinal. Tipoff is 10:30 a.m. (Iowa time) at Greensboro Coliseum.

“A variety of things have elevated us,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “More than anything, we have a really good culture right now. We have kids that are positive and work hard. It takes work to be a good teammate. You don’t have to be best friends, but it sure is nice when you are.

“Those kind of intangibles, they can take you from an average team to a really good team.”

All three of the seniors have their storylines. Gustafson came from a town of 160 from remote northern Wisconsin and blossomed into, perhaps, the best player in the nation. Davis overcame two torn ACLs.

Stewart? She stuck around, stuck with it and is reaping the rewards.

“When I didn’t play right away, my ego got checked in a hurry,” she said. “I thought I’d get to play right away, and when I didn’t, I wondered, ‘Did I make the right decision coming here?’

“I knew Iowa was where I wanted to be, and I didn’t want to give up on it.”

A 6-foot-2 forward from Minot, N.D., Stewart has played in every game the past three seasons. Her minutes jumped to 9.8 per game as a sophomore, then 17.2 as a junior and 28.6 this season. Her scoring average, from 4.9 points per game to 7.3 to 11.1.

“I don’t know where we’d be without Hannah,” Davis said. “The personality she has, how much fun she is ... the team wouldn’t be the same without her.

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“When she was thinking about leaving, I told her that she had to do what was best for her. I don’t know what role I played in her staying; maybe her family did more talking that I did.”

Iowa was in trouble in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last Friday, trailing Mercer in the fourth quarter. But Stewart scored six late points, and the Hawkeyes escaped, 66-61. They followed with a 68-52 victory over Missouri, and reached the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in school history, the first since 2015.

“Winning, it’s like we’re addicted to it,” Stewart said. “We crave it, and we want to keep playing as long as we can.”

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

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