2019 NCAA TOURNAMENT

Keep your eyes in the paint when Iowa and NC State collide in NCAA Sweet 16

Iowa's Megan Gustafson is the veteran; NCSU's Elissa Cunane the up-and-comer

Iowa's Megan Gustafson (10) reaches for a pass during a drill at their Greensboro Region practice session Friday at Greensboro Coliseum. The Hawkeyes play North Carolina State in the NCAA women's basketball Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa's Megan Gustafson (10) reaches for a pass during a drill at their Greensboro Region practice session Friday at Greensboro Coliseum. The Hawkeyes play North Carolina State in the NCAA women's basketball Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Megan Gustafson is the established veteran. Elissa Cunane, the up-and-coming rookie.

Their worlds are about to collide.

The battle in the paint is one of the key storylines when eighth-ranked Iowa (28-6) tangles with No. 10 North Carolina State (28-5) in an NCAA women’s basketball regional semifinal Saturday.

Tipoff is 10:30 a.m. CT at Greensboro Coliseum. The game will be televised by ESPN.

“I look forward to the matchup,” said Cunane, the Wolfpack’s 6-foot-5 freshman center. “(Gustafson) shoots so close to the basket, and she makes about every shot she takes.”

A 6-3 senior, Gustafson leads the nation in scoring (28.0 points per game) and field-goal accuracy (70.1 percent). ESPN has named her its national player of the year.

“I don’t think we’ve played a player like that yet,” said Kiara Leslie, the Wolfpack’s top scorer at 15.9 points per game.

Cunane, some say, is the nation’s next dominant post, Gustafson’s heir apparent. In a February stretch against three ranked teams — Florida State, Syracuse and Notre Dame — she scored 25, 22 and 28 points.

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“She is young, but a good player, though,” Gustafson said. “She reminds me a lot of the centers in the Big Ten.”

Hannah Stewart deals with Gustafson every day in practice, and believes the Hawkeyes have a big advantage inside.

“I have confidence in Megan,” Stewart said. “I don’t think she’s going to have any problems with her. She has experience on her.”

Cunane knows she can’t contain Gustafson alone.

“We’re definitely prepared,” she said. “But our guards are going to have to pressure the (interior) passes.”

Gustafson is a ticking time bomb. She has scored at least 30 points on 13 occasions this season, including a 45-point explosion against Maryland in the Big Ten tournament final.

“We’re going to have to mix it up a little maybe,” NCSU Coach Wes Moore said. “We’ll get (Cunane) a lot of help.”

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Saturday’s game is the first of two semifinals here. No. 1 Baylor (33-1) faces No. 18 South Carolina (23-9) at 1 p.m.

Winners stay, and play for a Final Four berth Monday night.

The degree of difficulty rises with each round. The Hawkeyes survived a blah performance to get past Mercer in the first round, then upped their play to oust Missouri in Round 2.

They’ve got to be at the top of their game now.

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“We have to keep our cool,” guard Tania Davis said. “We have to focus in on Coach (Lisa) Bluder and rely on what got us here.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Iowa is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015, the second since 1996. The Hawkeyes’ last advancement to the Elite Eight was in 1993, the program’s lone Final Four season.

Another win would be the 29th for the Hawkeyes, which would tie the 1987-88 team for the most in a season.

“We’re writing ourselves in the history books,” Davis said.

The battle of the posts will be pivotal, yes, but so will the perimeter game. Led by Aislinn Konig, North Carolina State likes the outside shot, averaging 7.5 makes and 21.7 attempts from 3-point range per game.

“We definitely need to keep them from getting the spot-up three,” said Iowa’s Makenzie Meyer, who has caught fire (18 of 35 in the last five games) from long range. “We have to have a good defensive effort in all areas.”

Iowa is allowing 60.7 points per contest in its current seven-game win streak.

“Defense wins championships, and we’ve really taken that to heart,” Iowa’s Kathleen Doyle said. “We’ve got to keep up that defensive intensity.”

Before the NCAA began, the Hawkeyes coined the phrase, “We didn’t come this far to only come this far.”

Doyle repeated it Friday. They want to keep this thing going.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had, the most favorite team I’ve ever been on,” Meyer said.

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

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