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Iowa coach Lisa Bluder thanks the fans after beating Purdue, 72-58, but also commends Hannah Stewart (21 points) and Megan Gustafson (25). Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Usually known for her incredible scoring prowess, Megan Gustafson’s two most memorable plays Sunday afternoon were a crafty pass and a volleyball spike.

Symbolically, both highlights from Iowa’s national player-of-the-year candidate sent a message: The Hawkeyes are hardly a one-woman team, and — with a feisty performance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena — showed why they’re contenders for a Big Ten Conference championship.

Lisa Bluder’s 15th-ranked Hawkeyes put the hammer down to finish a 72-58 victory against Purdue, the last team to beat Iowa, before a season-high 9,319 roaring home fans.

And with that, the Hawkeyes hit the halfway mark of Big Ten play right in the thick of their first conference title in 11 years. At 16-4 overall and 7-2 in league play, they’re tied for second place with No. 10 Maryland and sit one game behind No. 18 Rutgers (8-1) — the team Iowa beat here with a stirring Wednesday night performance.

Yes, it was a good week.

“I do feel like we’ve positioned ourselves,” Bluder said, almost amazed that the Big Ten season is halfway over. “The second half is a little harder for us, because we have five road games and only four home games. But great teams win on the road. We’ve got to be able to do that.”

But first, they had to get things done against the Boilermakers.

It was tense for a while, with Purdue overcoming a 13-point, third-quarter deficit to pull even at 47-47. Plus, Iowa was experiencing what Bluder called an “off night” for Gustafson. For the all-American, a game with 25 points and 11 rebounds on 10-for-20 shooting qualifies. (Those are actually all below her season averages.)

“Isn’t that sad we have to hold the standards like that up to somebody?” Bluder joked afterward.

So it made sense that others had to step up for Iowa to come through.

And nobody else did it better than Hannah Stewart, Gustafson’s fellow senior in the post who racked up a career-high 21 points on 10-for-12 shooting.

“Taking what was there, not trying to force anything,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t very happy with my offensive performance against Rutgers.”

Stewart was surly after her four-point game against the Scarlet Knights, so she found herself in the gym — by herself — putting up extra shots over the past few days.

And, when the game was on the line Sunday, Gustafson found her.

The 6-foot-3 center, subjected to multiple (and physical) defenders all afternoon, scored 12 of her 25 points in the critical fourth quarter. But it was with Iowa hanging onto a precarious 62-57 lead that she dropped a beauty of a back-door pass to Stewart — who banked home the wide-open lay-up with 2:01 to play.

That bucket set her new career high and all but sealed a rewarding Hawkeye win.

“I spun a couple times, and I knew she was there,” Gustafson said. “It’s something we practice every single day. I’m pretty used to double- and triple-teams.”

And about that volleyball spike a minute later?

With the game in hand, Purdue’s Karissa McLaughlin drove the lane, and Gustafson — who this week was also named one of 15 candidates for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year — palmed the shot attempt and slammed the ball to the hardwood floor.

Her defiant swat was followed by a sheepish grin, more in line with her personality, along the baseline.

“I just wanted to put a little extra on that,” she would say afterward.

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Iowa's all-American center missed six straight shots at one point and scored 12 of her 25 points in the fourth quarter of a 72-58 win vs. Purdue. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Indeed, the Hawkeyes were frustrated by their loss at Purdue on Jan. 10. There was a phantom foul call on Gustafson that day in West Lafayette, and she fouled out for just the fifth time in her immaculate career.

But Gustafson and the determined Hawkeyes haven’t lost since. Though they have the Big Ten’s best player by a mile, they also enter the back half of conference play playing terrific team basketball. They lead the country in assists, adding 24 more to that total Sunday (led by Kathleen Doyle’s nine and Tania Davis’ seven) versus just eight turnovers.

Why not Iowa?

It’s already beaten league-leading Rutgers. And while Maryland is stocked with all-American talent, the Terrapins come here on Feb. 17 for the only meeting with Iowa.

Like Bluder said, the Hawkeyes are well-positioned — even when Gustafson (insert laugh here) has an off night.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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