'She's obviously a legend': Hawkeyes cherishing Megan Gustafson's return

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The pregame vibes will be electric and the postgame ceremony will be loud. Carver-Hawkeye Arena has prepared its best face for Sunday afternoon with a giant in the house.

More than anything, though, everyone just wants to see Megan Gustafson’s wide smile again. Her stay is only brief, barely a 24-hour stretch at that, but any reunion between Iowa women’s basketball and its program changer is a welcomed sight.

“I’m just excited to see Megan again,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said days before Iowa retires Gustafson’s No. 10 and faces Michigan State. “We’ve FaceTimed her and talked to her via that, but I’m just excited to have her in the arena again. The whole ceremony part is just a formality to me. It’s a great honor for her, but for me it’s like — I get to see her again.

”That’s the best thing.”

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta originallyannounced the number retirement decision back on April 24. The Michigan State datewas then confirmed last month. Part of the logistical challenge was finding a window in Gustafson’s overseas schedule that allowed her time to travel from Hungary to Iowa City. A Saturday night arrival precedes a Monday  departure.

That’s why Iowa fans, former teammates and coaches plan on soaking up every second Gustafson is here.

“I haven’t seen her since she left Iowa City (in April),” said senior Makenzie Meyer, a three-year teammate of Gustafson’s. “I’m just excited to see her and talk about her experiences. It’s going to be a really big crowd too, and we’re just excited to celebrate all she’s done for this program.”

Condensing all Gustafson did into a few paragraphs makes for a daunting challenge. The Hawkeyes’ most-heralded player transformed from a small-town Wisconsin girl into one of America’s most dominant college basketball players. Accolades from everywhere piled up during Gustafson’s Hawkeye years (2015-19). Retiring her No. 10 alongside Michelle Edwards' No. 30 was an easy decision.

Once the buzzer sounded on Gustafson’s collegiate career after Iowa’s Elite Eight loss to Baylor in the NCAA tournament, she began what’s already been a circuitous professional journey. She was drafted by the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, cut by Dallas, then re-signed by the Wings all between April 10 and June 13. Once settled, Gustafson averaged three points and 2.5 rebounds over 25 games.

When the WNBA season ended on Sept. 8, it was off to Hungary to join NKE-Csata in the country’s top division. Gustafson will play in her 16th game there Saturday before heading to America. She’s averaging more recognizable figures — 16.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while shooting 74 percent. 

“Megan’s a busy person,” sophomore Monika Czinano said, “so seeing her again is going to be awesome.”

Gustafson should like what she sees, too. The program she passed on to the likes of Czinano, Meyer, Kathleen Doyle and others isn’t slowing down in a new era. This was supposed to be Bluder’s transitional year. It’s been anything but for the nation’s No. 21 team and Big Ten Conference leader.

The Hawkeyes (16-3, 7-1) can make it 12 of 13 wins, including eight straight, and 31 consecutive home victories by toppling Michigan State (11-8, 4-4). With Gustafson’s ceremony set for after the game, this one is a de-facto must-win to avoid any awkward scenarios.

The Spartans, which have tumbled from ranked to barely breathing in about a month, should make for a cooperative counterpart. 

“I think a lot of the team cohesion comes from how good of friends we are off the court too,” Czinano said. “We don’t have to live with each other, but all of us have a roommate who’s a basketball player.

“I think that just translates well into actual basketball, being able to give and take constructive criticism from people you consider family. It makes the game so much more fun. And when you’re having fun, you play better.”

Sound familiar? It should. Answers raving about team chemistry peppered countless interviews last year as Gustafson guided Iowa to 29 wins an Elite Eight appearance and a No. 8 national ranking. That family feel from th​​​​​​​e past and present will unite Sunday under the Hawkeye spotlight. 

“She’s obviously a legend at Iowa,” Doyle said, “so it’s going to be awesome to be there with Megan.”

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.