Frontcourt showdown pivotal as Iowa readies for North Carolina State

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s a battle that’ll pit a talented freshman against the decorated senior. Who comes out on top will significantly dictate how Saturday afternoon unfolds.

When analyzing Iowa’s Sweet Sixteen matchup against North Carolina State, start with the down-low showdown. Unanimous all-American Megan Gustafson will tangle with the Wolfpack’s Elissa Cunane, a 6-foot-5 first-year standout who has buoyed North Carolina State’s postseason run.

Gustafson’s dominance has long been established. Cunane has played like a veteran all year, particularly over the last month. With an Elite Eight ticket on the line Saturday inside Greensboro Coliseum, all eyes will be on who can control the post.

Iowa center Megan Gustafson (10) embraces teammate Hannah Stewart (21) after a NCAA women's basketball tournament first-round game against Mercer, Friday, March 22, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

“I just kind of see this matchup with Megan and (Cunane) as the veteran versus the rookie, the experience versus the next up-and-coming great center in America. I think she’s that good,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said at Wednesday’s press conference. “She moves really well. She has more size than Megan, and her team looks for her very well. They feed her the ball really well, just like our players do.”  

Both forwards enter the Sweet Sixteen having shouldered heavy loads in the NCAA Tournament. Gustafson has arguably been the nation’s fiercest post all year — and nothing has changed with the season on the line. In wins over Mercer and Missouri, Gustafson combined for 54 points while shooting 77 percent (24-for-31). She added 35 boards for good measure.

Cunane, meanwhile, has cranked up the production since entering the starting lineup on Feb. 13. She’s averaging 17 points over the last 10 games — a stretch that includes nine double-digit outings and four 20-point showings.

Cunane’s third double-double propelled North Carolina State to a 72-57 win over Kentucky in Monday’s second round.

“It’s really important to just study the scout and study the film, whatever we can get,” Gustafson said. “… Me specifically, I like to look at both offense and defense. I’m watching how they’re splitting defense or how they’re playing on offense.

“Then I’ll turn my attention to how they defend people: ‘OK, do they like low side or high side front?’ Then I’m able to see, ‘OK, what can I do here? And then I specifically watch a lot of double teams. I can see what they’re doing and be like, ‘OK, I can turn quickly baseline here or turn middle quickly here.’ So again, just really emphasizing on what they’re doing defensively and offensively.”      

Iowa’s male practice players will help simulate the Wolfpack’s size. The Hawkeyes have seen quality frontcourt lineups throughout the year. But there’s an added pressure when the season hangs in the balance.

A flawless gameplan is imperative.

“We know NC State has a good post game, but we know they aren’t the biggest fastest posts we’ve seen all year,” said senior forward Hannah Stewart, who’ll be crucial as well in Saturday’s post showdown. “So just knowing their personnel and their shooting range is huge. And knowing how their posts work together too is a big thing too.”

It’d be difficult to find a team better equipped to handle such a matchup than Iowa, which has leaned on Gustafson and Stewart en route to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2015. The Hawkeyes must be sharp, though, on the elevated stage.

Own things down low and Iowa’s stay in Greensboro could very well be extended.    

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.