Iowa women's basketball: Hannah Stewart delivers strong debut in amplified role
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Hannah Stewart glanced toward the end of the interview table as she delivered her response, knowing fellow senior Tania Davis could relate.
“Wow, it’s come really fast that’s for sure,” Stewart said, answering a question about the start of her final season as a Hawkeye. “Pretty soon, it’s going to be the start of the Big Ten season — and just like that it’s going to be over. We don’t really like to think about it or talk about it.”
“No we don’t,” Davis interjected, as she and Stewart shared a laugh.
Games, not seasons, remain in Stewart’s Hawkeye tenure, but things have drastically shifted for this veteran forward in her final run. She's now firmly entrenched in Iowa’s starting five, planted alongside all-American Megan Gustafson in what’s expected to be a strong frontcourt.
Friday’s senior year tipoff was a promising open. Helping buoy the No. 17 Hawkeyes’ 90-77 win over Oral Roberts, Stewart delivered a career-high 19 points on 7 for 12 shooting, six rebounds and four assists.
Not a bad start, in her first-ever start.
“I love it,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said after the win. “Hannah’s worked so hard the last three years. She’s stayed positive. She’s just given everything to this program.”
While Iowa’s offseason narrative centered on how few personnel changes there’d be between last season and this one, Stewart was the lone exception. Starting forward Chase Coley was off and graduated — and Iowa needed frontcourt reinforcements.
Enter Stewart, the logical choice. The 6-foot-2 North Dakota native averaged 7.3 points and 17.2 minutes per game as the team's top bench option a season ago.
A promotion was coming.
“I’m so happy for her to have this experience right now and to be inserted into the starting lineup,” Bluder said. “She deserved it, and it’s good to see when good people have good things happen to them.”
Stewart’s newfound impact unfolded quickly Friday, leading to six points in the first four minutes. Seven points in the final quarter helped Iowa fend of Oral Roberts’ late 3-point surge.
With Gustafson swarmed throughout, Stewart was often left wide open for simple looks right at the basket. That should be the ongoing theme this year as foes lock on Iowa’s Port Wing star.
Stewart knows she’ll often be the top beneficiary.
“Having an all-American on your team is nice for a lot of reasons,” Stewart said. “But I think it’s a testament to the kind of player Megan is. She truly doesn’t score every basket for herself but for Iowa. That’s something we practice. I think teams wouldn’t be very smart to not double-team her. That’s something we work on, and she knows it’s coming.
“As for myself — I know what my role is — and sometimes, that’s to be open when my (defender) goes and guards Megan. I think I just need to stay within my role and not do too much. Let these guys do their job — let Megan do her job — and I’ll do mine.”
That role won’t be pouring in career-highs every night, but Stewart must take full advantage of each opportunity Gustafson’s presence provides. Iowa will become that much more dangerous and versatile if Stewart is a consistent threat, especially while offensive weapon Kathleen Doyle is sidelined with a fractured hand.
Should the Hawkeyes reach their lofty expectations, Stewart’s final season will be loaded with unforgettable memories and moments. A legit chance at a Big Ten title and a solid shot at a deep NCAA Tournament run are certainly in play.
For Stewart, Friday was the first positive step.
“It’s been an amazing past three years — and this year is going to be great too,” Stewart said. “Senior year is really a different feeling, knowing that this is your last shot as far as going as far as you want to go.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.