Leistikow: How the Hawkeye women became 'one of the most loving, fun teams ever'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A coach can recruit the right players and draw up all the right plays on the whiteboard.

But there’s one essential and elusive ingredient to success in team sports that stems from the players, and it's usually achieved organically: True togetherness, the kind that leads to selflessness and passion within the games; love and support after them.

And this Iowa women’s basketball team has it.

The unity has been visible with every smile, every jubilant scream and every hug that has emerged from these endearing Hawkeyes over the course of what's become a magical season.

And it was evident this week, as I sat across from the team's three seniors — the quirky all-American center; the fiery point guard with two surgically repaired knees; and the hilarious forward who found true joy outside the spotlight — as they prepared for the biggest basketball game of their lives.

Iowa's three seniors (from left: Tania Davis, Megan Gustafson and Hannah Stewart) relish the final moments of their round-of-32 victory against Missouri. A Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina State is next.

A conversation with Megan Gustafson, Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart was filled with laughter and repeated detours to discuss their love for their teammates — and this unforgettable journey together.

A 28-win season. A once-in-a-lifetime player. The experience of playing in front of NCAA Tournament-record home crowds. A chance at the program’s first NCAA Elite Eight appearance in 26 years.

All that stuff is terrific. It's historic.

But these three Hawkeye seniors' legacy will be as much about the way they played as the wins they compiled.

“I hope it’s who we are as people that people are going to remember more, and the way we brought this team together,” Stewart says. “And that we’ve been on one of the most loving, fun teams ever — that doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it.”

As shared by the Hawkeyes’ three leaders, here’s how tight-knit togetherness happened over the course of 3½ years — and why they believe they can ride it all the way to the Final Four:

The star from Port Wing, Wisconsin (population 164) first had to find her voice.

Gustafson is the face of this team, the all-American girl that, by now, everyone has heard of. She’ll be highlighted throughout ESPN’s 10:30 a.m. CT Saturday telecast of Iowa vs. North Carolina State from Greensboro, North Carolina. You’ll probably see a recent video of a young girl in her driveway, trying to emulate Gustafson's proficiency in her two-ball take off the famous Mikan Drill.

She is the Division I leader scoring (28.0 points per game) for the second straight year. She owns the single-season Big Ten Conference records for points (951) and rebounds (459). She is undeniably the most dominant basketball player — man or woman — in Hawkeye history.

But before Gustafson blossomed into an amazing player with an infectious personality … she didn’t say much to anyone. She went to bed by 8 p.m. About the only talking she did was to herself.

Stewart playfully tells the story of her first days as Gustafson’s roommate, as freshmen.

"She would make oatmeal or whatever, and she’d be talking (to herself) the whole time," Stewart says. "I’m just sitting in our dorm room and — this is, like, our first couple days with her — I’m thinking, ‘Who is this girl?'"

Three-fourths of their initial recruiting class — Davis, Stewart and Tagyn Larson (now at South Dakota State, which also reached the Sweet 16) — socialized together.

Gustafson went her own quiet way.

“You would always see Hannah, Tagyn and I. But you never saw Megan. EVER,” Davis says with a laugh. “It was so hard to get her to go to dinner with us, to just hang out.

“Do you leave her alone? Do you continue to (try) to get her to come with us?”

Gustafson acknowledges her initially shy nature but explains her small-town life on the shores of Lake Superior: “I’ve never been around people too much. ... It was a whole new atmosphere.”

Circling back to Davis’ earlier query … her teammates were persistent and eventually coaxed Gustafson to outwardly embrace her quirky ways.

“They got the goofy side out of me,” she says, “and it was easy to open up.”

That helped off the court. But what about on it?

Gustafson’s game began to emerge late in her freshman year, then thrived as a sophomore. But Iowa’s team was average, at best, in those first two years, with back-to-back WNIT berths — hardly the standard under longtime coach Lisa Bluder.

Coaches and players collectively urged Gustafson, who possessed brilliance with her dynamic moves and her understanding of the game, to be more vocal on the floor.

“You have great things to say. We need to hear what you are saying,” Stewart recalls as the collective message. “You are such a great player, and obviously, you’re thinking some great things that you need to share with the rest of us."

Last season, Gustafson became the voice her teammates needed. 

This season, her leadership has been off the charts.

Historic results have followed. Already, this group has the most wins of the 19-year Bluder era. With a victory Saturday, Iowa would tie the program's record of 29 wins, owned by C. Vivian Stringer’s 1988 team that was ranked No. 1 nationally for eight weeks.

Without Gustafson’s transformation, this doesn’t happen.

As Stewart puts it: “Team chemistry starts at the top. We have an all-American who is the most humble person there is.”

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For Davis and Stewart, achieving senior success was three years in the making.

This season, Iowa has shattered the Big Ten record for assists: 739 and counting.

That statistic speaks to players finding selfless roles around their star.

It took Stewart a while to find her way. She arrived from Minot, North Dakota “with a big ego, thinking I was going to start and be a big star” at Iowa.

Instead, she spent most of her first two years on the bench. As a freshman, she scored five points — all season.

"There were times I didn’t know if I was supposed to be here," she says, "or if I was ever going to play. But I was going to make sure I gave it my all, and I wasn’t going to go out with any regrets."

She finally cracked the starting lineup as a senior ... where she's thriving. At 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, she’s been an effective inside complement to Gustafson. Earlier this month, she was named to the all-Big Ten Tournament team.

"I never thought that would happen," she says.

Stewart’s senior rise runs parallel to Davis' — but for different reasons.

There was a somber tone in the trainer’s room in December 2017, after Davis tore the ACL in her right knee — 10 months after tearing the ACL in her left.

Another 10 months later, and she was back. After missing most of her sophomore and junior seasons, the native of Flint, Michigan, has played all 34 games as a senior. She's averaging 10.4 points and 4.5 assists and become known for her clutch shots. Her 3-pointer with 2 seconds to go sealed the win over Iowa State in December.

More importantly, Davis has served as a beacon of toughness. After practices, she can be seen with multiple ice packs strapped around her 5-foot-3 body.

“Never give up,” she says. “Always fight for what you want. This past year, I’ve been refusing to take no (for an answer) and (wanting) to prove people wrong.”

Stewart interjects.

"I have a story."

Stewart tells of seeing Davis' laptop screen-saver their freshman year: a photo of the Big Ten championship trophy.

On March 10, Davis' fingers felt that trophy for the first time after Iowa defeated Maryland, 90-76, in Indianapolis.

"We knew how much she wanted it," Stewart says, before turning to Davis.

"Now, (the screen saver) is you with the actual trophy, right?"

Davis grins.

"Yeah. I changed it."

Unbreakable team chemistry was found in a text message.

After letting a 16-point lead slip away in a heart-wrenching Feb. 21 loss at Indiana, the Hawkeyes had lost their control of a Big Ten regular-season title.

Gustafson was hurting as much as anyone, but fired off a group text to her team.

“Hey Hawks, I know that it stings right now,” Gustafson typed, “but we just have to keep moving forward. This loss doesn’t define us by any means, and for that matter (neither) does getting a championship ring. … What matters is our attitudes, work ethic and belief in each other. We are unbreakable as a team because of our determination to get up after we fall.

“I just wanted to let all of you know that I am so incredibly proud of each of you (players and coaches) and that I wouldn’t want to finish up my career with anyone else. Don’t ever stop fighting Hawks, the best is yet to come!”

Safe to say: Gustafson found her voice.

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The Hawkeyes haven’t lost a game since.

They boarded a plane Thursday carrying a seven-game winning streak and enough clothes for an 11-day trip. If they beat North Carolina State on Saturday and (presumably) No. 1 Baylor on Monday, they’ll go straight to Tampa, Florida, for next week’s Women’s Final Four.

These seniors aren’t prepared for their journey together to end.

Gustafson, again asserting her voice, takes exception that outsiders view this Iowa team as a “dark horse” to make the Final Four.

"They don’t really think too much of us, to be honest," Gustafson says. "We want to prove them wrong. We want to show them that this is a team of destiny. Honestly, I think that it is."

They call this their "victory formation." Iowa players Makenzie Meyer (3), Kathleen Doyle (22), Megan Gustafson (10), Tania Davis (11) and Hannah Stewart (21) prepare to shoot clinching free throws against Indiana in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

Back in mid-February, when Iowa was about to beat mighty Maryland at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, something cool happened: With the game in hand and free throws coming, Iowa’s five starters — the three seniors plus junior guards Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer — formed a line and, their arms around each other, walked down the floor.

It happened organically that day but has now become their thing.

They call it their “victory formation.”

“Just when we know we’ve clinched the win and we’re all smiles,” Stewart says.

Gustafson jumps in again. “I get goosebumps whenever we do that.”

If Iowa is beating North Carolina State in the final stages Saturday, watch for ESPN cameras to capture that victory-formation moment.

Hawkeye players, winning together. And smiling together.

It’s what they do. It's what they've done.

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.