Notebook: Iowa freshmen taking strides in league play

Ryan Murken
Iowa's Tania Davis steals the ball during the Hawkeyes' game against Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016.

The question came to Lisa Bluder with the appropriate stipulation.

Other than Jessica Shepard, is there a better freshman in the Big Ten right now than Megan Gustafson?

Bluder thought.

The Iowa coach has spoken highly of Michigan freshman center Hallie Thome, and there is Penn State's Teniya Page, who has put together a strong season.

However, Bluder has her own set of freshmen that continue to put up impressive numbers.

"That is something I really hadn’t thought about,” Bluder said of putting Gustafson among the league’s best freshman. “Quite honestly in addition to Megan we have Tania (Davis) too, who is playing extremely well.”

Davis and Gustafson have both put themselves in the mix to be named to the Big Ten all-freshman team with strong play over the conference season.

Gustafson has posted double-doubles in five of her last six games and is averaging 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in Big Ten play.

Iowa fighting to keep NCAA Tournament streak alive

Davis is averaging 9.1 points and 3.9 assists per game during conference play and has drawn the defensive assignment of defending some of the nations best scorers.

“I was talking to her in practice before the Minnesota game and I said 'last year you are playing high school basketball and now you are guarding the No. 2 and No. 3 scorers in America as a freshman' and that is a lot for a freshman to handle and she has never backed down,” Bluder said. “Tania is fearless.”

The reference to Shepard is noteworthy.

Nebraska’s 6-foot-4 freshman ranks fifth in the league in scoring (20.6) and fourth in rebounding (8.9) and is a shoo-in for Big Ten freshman of the year

Shepard has set a conference record by being named Big Ten freshman of the week 10 times this season and is the first freshman in Nebraska history to record 500 points in a season.

TOO MUCH BANHAM: Iowa saw firsthand on Monday exactly how scorching hot Minnesota senior Rachel Banham has been over the past several weeks.

Banham scored 35 points on Monday in Minnesota’s 78-76 win over Iowa, including the game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was the third consecutive 30-point performance for Banham, who added nine rebounds and eight assists in the win.

“I thought that our kids played hard, I thought we stayed focused the whole time, we gave it a great effort, and unfortunately we just had too much Rachel Banham,” Bluder said. “She is a terrific player and she showed it last night again.”

Banham is now 79 points away from tying the Big Ten career scoring record of 2,919 held by Kelly Mazzante of Penn State.

REDEMPTION TIME: Three of Iowa’s final four conference games come against teams that have already beat the Hawkeyes this season.

Iowa gets a chance to even the season series with Purdue, Indiana and Penn State in the next eight days.

Along with playing for a postseason bid that redemption is providing some added late-season incentive.

“We feel like those are games that we let get away from us,” Iowa junior Ally Disterhoft said. “So coming up those are games where we can come out and make a statement that we have gotten better and that we shouldn’t have let those slip away earlier in the season.”

POSTSEASON PLANS: Iowa plans to be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth consecutive season.

If those NCAA plans don’t come to fruition Iowa still expects to play basketball in March.

Bluder said Tuesday that, if offered, Iowa would accept a bid to the WNIT.

“We will be playing in the postseason, we need to get experience, so absolutely,” Bluder said. “We aren’t too proud to turn down the WNIT, but we are still setting our sights on the NCAA."

Reach Ryan Murken at 319-339-7369 or and follow him on Twitter at @rmmurken.