Much like the team she is surrounded by, Megan Gustafson always welcomes a challenge.
The Iowa senior figures she has just that on her hands today when she competes against one of the nation’s top young post players as the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes face 10th-ranked North Carolina State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Gustafson will be lining up against the Wolfpack’s 6-foot-5 Elissa Cunane, one of the more intriguing match-ups in the 10:30 a.m. regional semifinal game at Greensboro, N.C.
"I just kind of see this match with Megan as the veteran versus the rookie, the experience versus the next up-and-coming great center in America," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "I think she’s that good."
Cunane has thrived in the 10 games since moving into the North Carolina State lineup after junior Erika Cassell became the fourth Wolfpack player to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament this season.
She has averaged 17 points and 8.4 rebounds per game during that stretch to help North Carolina State build its 28-5 record, and in four postseason games, Cunane has averaged 17.8 points and 9.8 rebounds.
"She moves really well, and she has more size than Megan," Bluder said, referencing Gustafson’s 6-3 height. "They feed her the ball really well, just like our players do."
Cunane will be tested by Gustafson, who has led the country in scoring the past two seasons and currently averages 28 points while leading the nation with a 70.1-percent shooting touch from the field.
In her five postseason games, the Big Ten player of the year has averaged 29.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game.
It’s a game within the game that Cunane welcomes.
"I look forward to it," she said. "She shoots the ball so close to the basket and seems to hit every shot she takes."
Cunane said one of the objectives the Wolfpack have in dealing with Gustafson mirrors what Mercer found some success with in the opening round of the tournament.
The Bears challenged the entry pass, disrupting the flow of the Big Ten’s most productive offense and forcing Iowa into a season-high 24 turnovers before the Hawkeyes held on for a 66-61 victory.
"We’re definitely prepared. Our guards are going to have to pressure the entry passes," Cunane said.
North Carolina State coach Wes Moore said his team will work to take whatever pressure it can off of Cunane.
"That’s a big test, but we’re going to have to mix it up a little and get her some help," Moore said.
Gustafson appreciates the skill she sees as she watches Cunane work.
"She reminds me a lot of the centers in the Big Ten," Gustafson said. "She does a lot of good things, moves well. She’s a good young player."
The battle between second and third seeds — a contest which separates Iowa from its first Elite Eight appearance since reaching that level on its way to the Final Four in 1993 — is more than just Gustafson vs. Cunane, though.
"Every single match-up you look at on paper is really good," Bluder said. "All the match-ups are unique and intriguing."
At stake today is a spot in Monday’s 6 p.m. regional final against the winner of a 1 p.m. semifinal between top-seeded Baylor (33-1) and fourth-seeded South Carolina (23-9).
The Hawkeyes enter the Sweet 16 on a seven-game win streak, sweeping away the competition since losing by two points on a late shot at Indiana on Feb. 21.
"That game opened our eyes," Gustafson said. "We came out of the Maryland game a couple days before that knowing that we are a good team, but Indiana reminded us that there are other teams out there. We haven’t let down since."
Bluder likes the mindset she has seen from her 28-6 team throughout the week.
"This team embraces the grind. There is still a lot of work and business to finish and work to be done," Bluder said. "There is still a hunger in their eyes."