Three hours after top-ranked Baylor ended the Iowa women’s basketball season one step shy of the Final Four, Megan Gustafson was still in uniform.
She let the world know that on Twitter late Monday night, still holding onto every memory of a collegiate career that took her from tiny Port Wing, Wisconsin, population 164, to all-American status as the leader of a team which made the Hawkeyes’ deepest postseason run in 26 years.
Iowa’s career scoring and rebounding leader wrote, “If anyone is wondering, I am still wearing my uniform. Thank you, University of Iowa, for an amazing ride.’’
The feeling was mutual.
Baylor earned its Final Four berth in dominating fashion, illustrating in its 85-53 rout of the Hawkeyes in the finals of the Greensboro regional the difference that exists between the traditional crème de la crème of women’s college basketball and the programs putting in the sweat to attempt to get there.
Much like the 105-71 loss another top-ranked team and Final Four qualifier, Notre Dame, handed Iowa in late November, the Lady Bears handled the Hawkeyes on the boards and on the defensive end of the court.
Those losses, early and late in a 29-7 season which saw Iowa equal a school record for wins, did not define this Hawkeye team.
Coach Lisa Bluder was adamant about that in an emotional postgame news conference Monday, saying she planned to try not to remember what happened against Baylor.
“To me, I’m going to remember cutting down the nets with these guys after winning a Big Ten championship,’’ Bluder said. “I’m going to remember Tania (Davis’) results coming back (from surgery to repair a second torn ACL), I’m going to remember Hannah Stewart’s journey. I’m going to remember getting the opportunity to coach one of the best basketball players in America in Megan. That’s what I’m going to remember, the relationships, the great memories with these young ladies.’’
The Hawkeyes’ three seniors — Gustafson, Davis and Stewart — followed their own paths to the same destination.
From the skill of Gustafson, the perseverance of Davis to the determination of Stewart to earn the first starts of her career as a senior, their legacy is one of what can happen when diverse individuals work together toward a common goal.
“They gave me all they had, worked as hard as they could,’’ Bluder said. “I know that they believed and came in here wanting it, but we just didn’t get the job done. It would have been nice to have hit some threes and be able to knock some of those down, but Baylor did a good job of taking that pass out away from us.’’
Still, the Hawkeyes took much more away from this season.
Beyond what transpired in Greensboro, the foundation has been laid for the future.
Starting guards Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer return next fall for their senior seasons, the core of a team which will have a different look from the Hawkeyes who earned the program’s first Big Ten tourney title since 2001 last month.
That’s not uncommon.
Bluder and her staff have traditionally been able to build around available talent in shaping a program which has played postseason basketball 18 times in the 19 seasons they have been at Iowa.
There won’t be another Megan Gustafson on the court for Iowa next season — or for a generation of seasons in all likelihood — but benefits from this season extend deep into the Hawkeye roster.
“Our younger players, they may not have gotten many minutes, but they are getting to experience what this is all about. They’re getting the practices and preparation that will benefit them when it’s their turn,’’ Bluder said last week.
Those are the rewards provided by a deep postseason run, ready to be reaped in future seasons with players who learned what it was all about by watching Gustafson, Davis and Stewart bring it all together.
Ready because of what they learned by watching and learning from the heart and soul put into to the game by Gustafson, whose final words in Monday’s postgame news conference said it all about the small-town girl turned big-time player.
“I just try to do my job here and work hard every single day,’’ Gustafson said. “God has blessed me with an amazing ability to play basketball and I’m just so, so pleased and thankful that the University of Iowa chose me and I chose to play for them.’’