Iowa makes its star center’s GOAT status official
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa fans are nothing if not loyal.
When Megan Gustafson was among the Dallas Wings’ final cuts last May, Hawkeye fans abandoned their newfound WNBA fandom en masse. But when the Wings re-signed her in June, they all came back.
That’s what Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was all about: coming home.
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“This is a place that’s so special to my heart,” Gustafson said during her postgame jersey retirement ceremony. “To come back here today and see what a great crowd that came out for our girls today … I’m so proud to be a Hawk.”
Hawkeye fans showed up, all right: 13,420 of them, the second-most since Lisa Bluder has been Iowa’s head coach. But it was only the highest attendance in regular-season play since March, when 12,051 fans came out to see Gustafson, Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart play their final Big Ten home game.
Humble, though, was always the watchword with Gustafson, even as her laundry list of accolades — Naismith Award winner, Lisa Leslie Award winner, Senior CLASS Award winner, numerous school records and Big Ten records and so many more — were listed as the banner displaying her No. 10 jersey was lifted to the rafters following Iowa’s 74-57 win over Michigan State.
Because, yes, there was a game to play first. The buzz around the arena pregame, as fans peered down the tunnel hoping for a glimpse of Gustafson, was that Maryland had just defeated Northwestern, meaning an Iowa win would give them sole control of first place in the Big Ten.
As starting lineups were announced, there also seemed to be a louder-than-usual cheer for sophomore Monika Czinano, who despite Bluder’s insistence that she not be compared to Gustafson, has been playing very Gustafson-like in her first year as a starter — another 6’3 center with an absurdly high shooting percentage, already one of Iowa’s favorite targets down low.
But in the third quarter, after scoring her second basket of the game on just her fourth attempt thanks to some stingy Michigan State defense, Czinano went down with an apparent ankle injury. After a long trip to the locker room, she came back to the bench wearing a boot.
Two-time Big Ten Player of the Week Kathleen Doyle, who led an early scoring outburst for Iowa, was still doing what she could offensively. She finished with 20 points, marking her third 20-point game in a row.
Freshman McKenna Warnock took over from there. In her 24 minutes off the bench, Warnock scored a game-high 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting and added 10 rebounds for her second career double-double. All of those numbers either set or tied career-highs.
These individual performances showcased the best of both worlds for Hawkeye fans. With Doyle, a reliable floor leader whose game has only improved in her senior season, there’s the presence that fans have come to expect — she played alongside Gustafson for three seasons, after all. But it’s a player like Warnock who proves that the program is going to be just fine after Doyle — or Gustafson — is gone.
“I’m thrilled to have this many people come out to watch our team today, and I hope you’re gonna all come back in a couple of weeks, right?” Bluder teased postgame. “We really appreciate your support.
“But it’s fun to honor Megan.”
Nine months ago, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced during a celebration of the 2018-19 Hawkeyes that Gustafson would become the second Iowa player to have her number retired after Michelle Edwards’ No. 30 was retired in 1990. It had been only 23 days since Gustafson’s final game.
On Sunday, Barta brought to light why it took less than a month for that decision to be made.
“I heard over the [public address] announcement that Megan is the greatest women’s basketball player in the history of our program,” Barta said. “I’m gonna take it a step further. She’s one of the most successful, decorated student-athletes in the history of the Hawkeyes, in all sports.”
Sunday’s win marked the Hawkeyes’ 32nd in a row at home, maintaining the country’s second-best such streak. As the final buzzer sounded, the public address announcer reminded the crowd that Iowa was now alone in first place in the Big Ten.
But winning at Carver-Hawkeye Arena? Seeing the view from the top of the Big Ten? That’s what the Hawkeyes do now.
After all, that’s just how Gustafson left things.
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