Iowa women's basketball: Massive opportunity awaits with Notre Dame showdown

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Megan Gustafson’s response was emphatic and direct, almost as if she’d rehearsed it countless times before. It’s clear this night has been highlighted for a while.

“I’ve thought about this game for months and months and months,” Iowa’s senior forward said. “I’ve played it over in my head over and over again, so I’m just so excited to have this opportunity.”

What an opportunity it is.

A national TV spotlight against the top-ranked squad and defending national champions, with a chance to pull a stunner and shake up the women’s college basketball world.

That’s what No. 15 Iowa (4-1) gets Thursday evening when it travels to Notre Dame (6-0) for a 6 p.m. showdown on ESPN2. Among the 14 Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchups, this is the obvious headliner.

Iowa forward Megan Gustafson (10) looks to pass during an NCAA women's basketball game on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

For a Hawkeye squad that’s embraced lofty expectations for months now, this game gives Iowa a chance to cement itself among this season’s elite. The Hawkeyes had a decent showing at last week’s Junkanoo Jam — going 1-1 with a huge comeback win over a then-No. 20 West Virginia before falling to Florida State — but Thursday is on a different level.

Knock off No. 1, and you’ll see the Iowa buzz ratchet up significantly.

“We’re completely ready for it,” senior guard Tania Davis said. “I think we’re all ready and excited for this opportunity. I feel like we’re very prepared for it — the Bahamas definitely prepared us for it, with the defensive intensity aspect. ... All of us are looking forward to it.

“I feel like we’re very well equipped. West Virginia and Florida State definitely helped us out in that aspect, giving us different looks offensively and defensively. They also gave us some things that we need to work on, which is playing a full 40 (minutes) and not just playing three quarters. So that definitely helped in that aspect.”

Now, the flip side. There’s no denying this is a daunting task.

Almost all of Notre Dame’s pivotal pieces are back from last season’s national championship run, punctuated by a deadly backcourt that can put up points in a hurry.

Arike Ogunbowale’s NCAA Tournament heroics make her the obvious headliner, but junior guard Jackie Young can carry the load just as easily. She was named the espnW national player of the week Monday after leading the Fighting Irish to a comeback win over Oregon State in the Vancouver Showcase title game. Oh, not to mention that Notre Dame just got senior guard Marina Mabrey back from a quad injury.

It's safe to say Iowa’s guards are facing a hefty defensive challenge.

“All we can do is try to make them take hard shots,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said, “because hard shots are a lower percentage than easy shots — in-the-paint shots, around-the-rim shots. So we want to try to make them take hard shots, and you’ve got to hope they don’t go in sometimes. That’s really all you can do.”

The weapons are no less potent when moving inside. Notre Dame trots out 6-foot-4 Jessica Shepard and 6-foot-3 Brianna Turner, giving Iowa its first look at a double-post offense this season.

How Gustafson and Hannah Stewart handle the down-low battle on both ends could dictate how this one unfolds.

“We do know Jessica (who’s a Nebraska transfer), and we respect her. We know that she’s got good range. She’s physical and can rebound. And Turner — man, that girl can jump,” Bluder said. “I worry about lobs with her, because she’s such a good athlete and can get up around the rim.”                             

No season is defined by one November result — and with more challenges up ahead, Iowa must refocus quickly, regardless of Thursday’s outcome. An already treacherous nonconference slate got even tougher on paper with Iowa State (Dec. 5) and Drake (Dec. 21) entering both polls this week.

No denying, though, that this isn’t your everyday opportunity.

“I see us playing as hard as we possibly can each and every second, and when that final buzzer goes off, we’re the ones victorious,” Gustafson said, breaking down her internal vision. “I think that’s how everyone feels going into these kinds of games.”

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.