Iowa women's basketball: Chronicling the 'totally committed' Hawkeye senior class

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tania Davis can still remember the first meeting, deep in the basement of the Iowa Memorial Union. Freshman orientation is typically a blend of anxiety and anticipation. There was comfort in finding future teammates.

Even if introductions were needed.

“Honestly, I just saw a group of tall girls and thought, ‘Those must be my teammates,’” Davis recalled with a laugh. “They came over and recognized me because they knew I was the only short one. We introduced ourselves, and yeah, the rest is history.”

Seniors Tania Davis, Megan Gustafson and Hannah Stewart have had quite a ride in four years.

Nearly four years after that initial 2015 summer encounter, the curtains are closing on Iowa’s decorated 2019 senior class. Davis, Hannah Stewart and Megan Gustafson will play their final regular-season game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, as the No. 11 Hawkeyes (22-6, 13-4 Big Ten Conference) look to close out an undefeated home campaign against Northwestern.

Players routinely mention how time flies when these sentimental moments arrive, but a lot can be packed in between signing day and senior day. Injuries, transfers, redshirts and other factors are more prevalent than ever in college basketball. Visions for how a recruiting class might unfold often don’t match reality.

► Leistikow: Time running out to enjoy Megan Gustafson, the best player in Iowa basketball history

Iowa’s 2019 trio stuck through it all.

The class’ only casualty was Tagyn Larson, who transferred to South Dakota State after her freshman season. Otherwise, it’s hard to envision a better ending for Davis, Gustafson and Stewart. Three friends, three senior starters — on a team barreling toward the NCAA Tournament with lofty expectations.

Iowa guard Tania Davis (11) helps up Iowa forward Megan Gustafson (left) during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

“When you are invested that much, it makes it harder to bail when things go south or you’re not getting the playing time or when you get injured,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “When you love something that much, it’s just easier to go through the grind.

“All three of them totally committed to being Iowa Hawkeyes when they got here. They didn’t have one foot in the door and one foot out. I think you see that sometimes with kids — ‘I’m going to commit here and if it doesn’t’ go my way, I’m out of here.’ Not with those guys.”                      

All three certainly had adversity to handle.

Stewart’s Iowa career began with limited playing time, the most common factor that leads to an early transfer. While Gustafson and Davis each started double-digit games as freshmen, Stewart took six shots the whole year. Not much changed the following season, as Stewart averaged less than 10 minutes per game as a sophomore.

Davis’ tribulations are even more well-known. Torn ACLs in the same calendar year ended both her sophomore and junior seasons, all without the opportunity for a medical redshirt. Even with eligibility remaining, no one would’ve blamed Davis if she had walked away from basketball.

MoreInside Tania Davis' grueling trek back from a second ACL tear

Then there’s Gustafson, who’s ascended into perhaps the most dominant player in Iowa basketball history. But before the flawless hook shots and forceful fist pumps, she was a small-town recruit who had to find a comfort zone with her new setting. It took time for Gustafson’s reserved personality to transform into the smiling, energetic all-American you see today.    

“It’s incredible to have both Hannah and Tania with me four years later,” Gustafson said. “It shows the commitment and the desire to just be together and just embrace this program for what it’s all about. It’s really special to have that.”

Collectively, it’s been a journey.

In four years, Davis, Gustafson and Stewart have seen NIT disappointment morph into NCAA Tournament glee. Getting the program back to the Big Dance last season after two straight whiffs set the stage for an emphatic final year.

Iowa forward Megan Gustafson (10) and Iowa forward Hannah Stewart (21) head to the bench during a NCAA women's basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

“We’ve gone through four very different teams these past four years,” Stewart said. “We’ve seen the highs and lows of every season, and I think we’ve been very together in those moments.

“We’ve been through a lot of good but also some lower points as well. I think that has really bonded us close together. We know what we’ve been through and what it’s taken to get to this season.”

As memorable as Sunday will be, this Hawkeye trio hopes more Iowa City basketball is on deck. Barring a loss to Northwestern and a Big Ten Tournament collapse, Iowa should earn a top-4 seed and host its first two NCAA Tournament games.

ESPN’s Charlie Crème currently has the Hawkeyes projected as a No. 3 seed, which would tie the 2015 Sweet Sixteen team for the best tournament seed under Bluder. In terms of recent standards, that team has been it for Iowa women’s basketball.

The current group could finish right there with them.

“It’s going to be memorable,” Stewart said. “I think we all wish we could play here for five more years if we could.”

Not once, but twice did Bluder get choked up this week when describing her seniors. Every class has its place in a program’s history, but there’s evidence this group could be remembered for something truly special.

The experiences have piled up since Davis, Gustafson and Stewart first exchanged greetings on campus. Four years later, they’re still standing in black and gold.

“As a mother, you are supposed to prepare your children to go out and conquer the world when they leave the nest," Bluder said. "You're supposed to do the same thing for your players.

“That's what I hope I have done."

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.