'We got the championship': Megan Gustafson's 45 lead unbreakable Hawkeyes to Big Ten title
INDIANAPOLIS — Sometime last year, the Iowa women’s basketball players got together and landed on a word that would define this season. They even had bracelets made.
“Whether we win or we lose,” Iowa center Megan Gustafson explained this weekend at the Big Ten Conference tournament, “we’re always going to be together as a family, working together as one unit.
“No matter what comes at us, we can always come together.”
In their biggest game of the season, the Hawkeyes’ one-word mantra was put to the test.
And when it mattered most, they passed.
Unbreakable here in Indy. Unbeatable, too.
The net has been cut, with 19th-year coach Lisa Bluder snipping the final string. It's official: With a rousing 90-76 win against Maryland on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the 2019 Iowa Hawkeyes are Big Ten champions.
"This is what I wanted, coming to Iowa — I wanted a Big Ten championship," Gustafson said, her smile bigger than ever with a piece of net nestled inside her freshly adorned Big Ten championship baseball cap. "I couldn’t be more proud of how our team played."
If voters were watching, this was a national player-of-the-year worthy performance from Gustafson. The senior delivered what she called the best game of her life. With adversity hitting all four of her fellow starters, she proved to be the pillar of strength for the Hawkeyes. Her season-high 45 points carried Iowa to the program’s first Big Ten tourney title in 18 years — and first conference championship in any women's sport since 2008.
Hungry for its first Big Ten Tournament title since Bluder's first year as Iowa coach (2001), Iowa arrived ready to raise a banner in a wildly entertaining first half.
The Hawkeyes sizzled with a relentless 15-0 first-quarter run, and their lead inflated to as many as 14 points early in the second quarter. But along the way to a 51-45 halftime lead, adversity struck.
Kathleen Doyle picked up two fouls in the first quarter. Makenzie Meyer had two by early in the second. Hannah Stewart and Tania Davis left briefly with injuries. Then, after Stewart came back, she picked up a second foul.
Notice the one starter who wasn’t unexpectedly knocked from the game?
Gustafson, the nation’s leading scorer for the second straight year, was practically unstoppable, with 26 first-half points despite taking a beating from Maryland’s interior players. In fact, Terrapins coach Brenda Frese gave center Olivia Owens hearty congratulations after she used five fouls in six minutes against Gustafson.
"Our coaches do a great job of coming up with a great offense," said Doyle, who finished with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals. "And obviously, Megan's pretty much automatic."
But nothing the Big Ten regular-season champion Terrapins did could stop No. 10.
Gustafson spun for buckets. Powered inside repeatedly for two. Hit quick-release jump shots. Even caught one crazy pass along the baseline and inexplicably scored two off the glass.
When Maryland roared back to pull even at 53-53, Gustafson had the answer. Her lay-in pushed Iowa back in front to stay midway through the third quarter.
She finished 17 of 24 from the floor, 11 of 14 from the line and hauled down 10 rebounds for her 85th career double-double. It was an epic performance. And of course, she was named the tournament's MVP after scoring 95 points and grabbing 39 rebounds in three days.
The best game of her life?
"Yep," she said without hesitation after hitting the 2,700-point mark in her incredible career. "Just everything surrounding it ... just the emotions that come with it, it's been pretty special."
Stewart (eight points, nine rebounds) also was named to the all-tournament team. Fittingly, the two seniors got together after the final horn sounded.
They didn't know what to say. So they just jumped up and down. Gustafson was in tears as confetti and streamers fell from the rafters.
"I was just crying, to be honest. I couldn’t really get much words," Gustafson said. "I came to Hannah and said, ‘We did it. We finally did it.’
"It's really been a dream come true."
Up next for the 26-6 Hawkeyes: the NCAA Tournament. They’ll host first- and second-round games in Iowa City, most likely as a No. 2 seed. They were pegged as the last No. 2 by the NCAA before this tournament, and with a perfect showing here will be well-positioned for a shot at the Sweet 16 in a few weeks at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
But that talk can wait. It's still more than a week until Selection Monday.
This day was first what this unbreakable Hawkeye family was pointing toward. A season of emotional wins — a thriller against Iowa State, a 14-4 Big Ten record — all led to Indy.
In Friday's quarterfinal, Indiana pulled ahead in the final minutes before Davis buried a big 3-pointer to help the Hawkeyes advance.
In Saturday's semis, Rutgers charged back from 20 points down to narrow the deficit to three late. Again, Iowa found a way.
And Sunday brought another physical fight against the marquee program in the conference. And Iowa stood alone as champion.
"Three games in three days is a lot. It’s been a grind. I feel old," Stewart said, laughing. "I feel like my bones hurt every time I fall.”
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Iowa's lead was 59-58 until Doyle and Gustafson combined for a 10-2 run to finish the third quarter. After Davis' big 3 started the fourth, it was suddenly 72-60 — and a countdown to the celebration.
Doyle jubilantly dribbled out the final seconds and flung the basketball into the air.
The Hawkeyes' resilient performance was complete. It was party time.
“They went on runs today, but we stayed together as a group," Doyle said. "Everyone stayed composed. And we were unbreakable. We got the championship. We cut down the nets. Unbreakable — it fits us perfectly.”
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.