Leistikow: Proficient Monika Czinano 'carrying the torch' for Iowa after Megan Gustafson

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Megan Gustafson’s legacy on Iowa women’s basketball has been hard to miss this season, particularly with a banner retiring her No. 10 jersey being hoisted to the Carver-Hawkeye Arena rafters six weeks ago.

But look toward the hardwood, and you'll see Gustafson's legacy is continuing in Iowa's  No. 25 jersey, too.

That’s the number that Monika Czinano wears, and the 6-foot-3 Hawkeye sophomore has become one of the best out-of-nowhere stories in women’s basketball.

Monika Czinano is averaging 16.1 points per game and shooting 69.9% from the floor, tops in the nation. The next-closest player in the Big Ten is shooting 58.2%.

She has gone from bit player a year ago, averaging barely one point in meaningful games, to the national leader in field-goal percentage. On Monday, perhaps a bit under the radar with teammate Kathleen Doyle being named Big Ten player of the year, she was named first-team all-conference by the league’s media.

On Friday, she will be helping lead the third-seeded Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament title defense in Indianapolis.

“I wish I could say, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew Monika was going to be this good.’ But I can’t,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder says. “She’s exceeded everybody’s expectations.”

How did she get so good so fast?

Well, as you might imagine, there’s a lot to that story.

MORE: 3 storylines for the defending champions at the Big Ten Tournament

A serious accident, a long recovery.

Czinano details the circumstances of a life-changing day in the Minnesota country, the summer before her freshman year at Watertown-Mayer High School. She was driving a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle, a friend riding with her, when one of the tires got stuck in a gravel hole.

Czinano gave the machine extra gas but it wouldn’t budge. Her subsequent instinct was to give it even more gas. The ATV sprung free, but with so much pace that Czinano lost control. They smashed into a nearby fence with such force that Czinano’s left leg and right wrist were broken. Because Czinano took the brunt of the blow, her smaller friend was protected from serious injury, which she calls a blessing.

“We didn’t know,” she recalls, “if I’d ever play basketball again at that point.”

A recovery and rehab that took almost a year followed. A rod was placed inside her injured leg. Eventually, because she was still growing, it was removed. Basketball-wise, Czinano had to start her climb all over again after being demoted from varsity bench-warmer as an eighth grader to the “C” team.

Iowa guard Kathleen Doyle, left, and Iowa center Monika Czinano (25) celebrate after a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Nebraska, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Eventually, she returned to basketball form. And she doesn't feel any pain in the leg now. But the whole process taught her something she doesn’t naturally have: Patience.

“There’s no faster way to fuse bones together,” she says now with appreciation for the lessons learned. “… Now it’s kind of a cool little story.”

That patience benefited her at Iowa, where she was largely on the bench as a freshman behind last year’s consensus national player of the year in Gustafson.

Knowing she only had one year to learn from one of the best to ever play in the Big Ten, Czinano eagerly listened to anything Gustafson had to say.

And, as was her reputation as a selfless star, Gustafson was more than willing to give.

“She’s the first person that reached out to me when I got to campus to work out,” Czinano says. “She’d be the first one to give me pointers if I didn’t understand a defense in practice.

“She was just the most supportive senior to a freshman, the most humble person I’ve ever met.”

Bluder describes Czinano as a “sponge” to Gustafson’s influence.

“Of all of our players, she watches the most film. She wants to learn. She wants to get better,” Bluder says. “For her to be leading the country in field-goal percentage is incredible. I told her, ‘Megan was fifth as a sophomore. Here you are leading it.’”

Czinano scored 66 points in 33 games as a freshman. Her role in important games was to spell Gustafson for a few minutes, nothing more.

Her freshman point totals in Iowa’s final 11 games, which included a Big Ten Tournament title and Elite Eight run: 0, 0, 0, 0, 4, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.

Her sophomore point totals in Iowa’s most recent seven games, heading into Friday’s matchup (approximately 7:45 p.m. CT, BTN) against either Ohio State or Minnesota: 23, 20, 15, 19, 23, 24, 19.

Like Gustafson was, Czinano has become a steady force in the middle of one of the most efficient offenses in women's basketball.

A text message from Hungary describes the passing of the torch.

Gustafson became just the fourth woman to score 1,000 points in a single season, so it’s completely unfair to make any projections like that for Czinano. But, there’s no missing the parallels between two lightly-recruited, strong girls from up north (Gustafson was from Port Wing, Wisconsin) who were transformed into potent post fixtures for Bluder's Hawkeyes.

Much of the credit belongs to Gustafson, for sure. But associate head coach Jan Jensen, in her 20th season at Iowa, continues to be the daily force behind Czinano’s rapid ascent. Jensen’s prowess for developing posts has landed her many opportunities for advancement in coaching, but Iowa is where her heart is. And like Gustafson, Czinano is grateful for that expertise.

“Everything she tells you it’s No. 1, coming from an amazing coach. And No. 2, from someone who genuinely cares about you,” Czinano said of Jensen. “Even when criticism comes, you know it’s constructive and for the best.

“I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else.”

Gustafson, playing overseas before returning to Dallas for her second WNBA season, has been following Czinano’s remarkable sophomore season, in which she’s averaging 16.1 points per game and shooting 69.9% from the floor. When Gustafson was a sophomore, her averages were 18.5 and 64.7%.

Reached in Hungary at 10 p.m. her time Wednesday night, Gustafson was more than happy to praise the girl she affectionately calls “my postie Hawkeye baby.”

Gustafson, via text, recalls Jensen first telling her about Czinano, even before her Iowa arrival.

“I recall thinking to myself that I was going to take her under my wing,” Gustafson writes. “Especially as a senior, for her to be the one that I left my legacy with is extra special.

“She is more than capable of carrying the torch onward of strong post play at Iowa, and now watching her create her own flame has been incredible. Proud of who she is as a player, but way more importantly as a person!”

Beautifully stated.

Czinano’s story, in a sense, is still just beginning, but it’s one to keep watching over her next two years at Iowa.

She played only 15 minutes in three games in last year’s Big Ten Tournament. If she stays out of foul trouble, she’ll play that many in the first half of Iowa’s first game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday night.

While Doyle, the Big Ten’s fourth-leading scorer and leader in assists, Czinano's knack for taking smart shots and controlling the interior has been one of the biggest reasons for Iowa's surprising run to a 23-6 season and possibly hosting NCAA Tournament games.

She's no fluke. She's good. 

"She’s on everybody’s scouting reports now,” Bluder says. “The proof is in the pudding. She’s done it."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa women at the Big Ten Tournament

Friday's game: No. 3 seed Iowa (23-6) vs. No. 6 Ohio State (18-11) or No. 11 Minnesota (16-14), approximately 7:45 p.m. CT (Big Ten Network)

Remaining schedule (if Iowa wins): Saturday's semifinal vs. winner of No. 2 Northwestern vs. No. 7 Michigan/No. 10 Nebraska, approximately 7:45 p.m. (BTN); Sunday's final, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)

Probable Iowa starters: G Kathleen Doyle (18.2 ppg, 6.4 apg), G Makenzie Meyer (14.4 ppg, 41.4% 3-pointers), G Alexis Sevillian (6.5 ppg, 2.4 apg), F Amanda Ollinger (6.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg), C Monika Czinano (16.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 69.9% FGs).