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Iowa junior all-American Megan Gustafson says the team wants to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. Chad Leistikow / The Register

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LOS ANGELES — Her story has transformed into a Midwestern fairy tale; humble small-town girl, from a high school graduating class as big as her college team’s roster, ascends among the elite with a year Hawkeye fans soon won’t forget.

That is where Megan Gustafson currently stands. She already owns the greatest season in Iowa women’s basketball history, having torched one foe after another with a consistent stream of dominance. Awards and accolades are piled high.

One last stretch remains in this emphatic junior year, but it’s the most important chapter yet. College basketball legacies are cemented in March, where the lights flip on brighter than ever have before. Gustafson will get her first taste Saturday afternoon, when she makes her NCAA Tournament debut against Creighton inside UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.  

“Playing in one of the major markets like that, taking her to the West Coast, playing against a different conference,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said, “all those things are such good things for Megan to get that national attention that I think she needs on this stage.”

Gustafson’s name is plastered all over the sport’s statistical leaderboards, but many inside Iowa’s walls feel the national recognition has come up short.

The 6-foot-3 forward who leads the country in scoring and ranks fifth in rebounding, had to split the Big Ten Conference player of the year award. Most publications that pegged Gustafson an all-American stuck her on the second or third team.    

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Megan Gustafson and the Hawkeyes open the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

You’ll never hear her complain, not the one whose genuine demeanor draws as much praise as her post moves. But Gustafson’s teammates don’t mind picking up that slack.

“Everyone obviously knows how good she is, besides maybe whomever voted (for) the all-American (teams),” sophomore Makenzie Meyer said. “It does make you mad. She has some of the best stats in the country. It disappoints me.”

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For those who still ponder Gustafson’s prowess, this weekend provides no better stage. NCAA Tournament spotlight mixed with L.A. glamour creates the perfect avenue for her to sway those who doubt. It’ll take a vintage Gustafson show and then some if the Hawkeyes are to turn their West Coast swing into a Sweet 16 trip.

There’s little evidence to suggest she isn’t ready.

Gustafson already thundered onto the postseason scene with a program-record 48-points in Iowa’s Big Ten Tournament loss to Minnesota, and has been anxiously waiting for Saturday since. She’s sat through two years of WNIT disappointment, hoping for an invitation to dance.

It’s finally arrived.

“I think we’ve been set up really well,” Gustafson said. “This year, I think the stones have fallen into place.”

There’s some truth to that given the Hawkeyes’ draw. Extensive familiarity exists between Iowa and Creighton, but the Bluejays feature a guard-heavy rotation that doesn’t include a behemoth in the paint.

Matchups overwhelmingly dictate how the NCAA Tournament unfolds, especially in the early rounds. Avoiding a foe with frontcourt depth is already a small Hawkeye win.

“They have three players who play the post — so it’s not like they don’t have a post by any means — but it’s just that they don’t have that 6-foot-4 player,” Bluder said. “But they’re physical, and it’s not like they won’t be physical on Megan.”

Northern Iowa coach Tanya Warren dissected both squads this season, having faced Creighton and the Hawkeyes in nonconference play. She’s dished out large helpings of Gustafson praise this year and knows the hefty challenge Iowa’s standout presents.

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“I don’t think you can slow her down,” said Warren, who added that she expects Creighton to double Gustafson a lot, primarily with leading scorer Audrey Faber.

“I think you have to be able to mix it up on Gustafson in terms of the doubles — where they’re coming from and that sort of thing. And then you hope you can slow everyone else down and score enough points to outscore Gustafson.”              

That’s what Minnesota did, holding the remaining Hawkeyes to 14 combined field goals in the 90-89 win on March 2. Iowa’s guards are an inexperienced crop — two sophomores and a redshirt freshman start — but someone(s) will need to shine alongside the Hawkeyes’ guiding star.

Still, this is Gustafson’s territory. In 13 games this season against NCAA Tournament teams, she averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds. Elite competition hasn’t deterred the dominance.  

“She doesn’t take any breaks,” senior teammate Chase Coley said. “When she’s in that basketball mode, she’s in that basketball mode. She doesn’t have a 50 percent or a 75 percent. It’s either zero — like off the court — or 100 percent, when she’s on the court.

“It’s always great when your best player is your hardest worker.”

Gustafson amplified that leadership once Tania Davis went down with another ACL tear in mid-December, a blow that could’ve sent Iowa reeling beyond repair. But there’s maturity among the youth, and Gustafson displays it as much as any Hawkeye.   

She’s made her impact no matter what happens in L.A., and there’s more to come next season in what will be a hype-filled senior year. 

Gustafson's current story, though, still has legs.

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

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Iowa coach Lisa Bluder discusses the impact of Megan Gustafson on the NCAA-bound Hawkeyes. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral

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