Help from Gustafson’s teammates crucial for Hawkeyes

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              Iowa guard Makenzie Meyer (3) celebrates at the end of a first-round game against against Mercer in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 22, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 66-61. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa reached the Sweet Sixteen in large part because of the spectacular play of Megan Gustafson.

If the Hawkeyes want to go further, they’ll need Gustafson’s teammates to give her some help.

Gustafson, a candidate for national Player of the Year, was predictably brilliant in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, racking up 54 points with 35 rebounds in wins over Mercer and Missouri.

But teammates such as Makenzie Meyer, Kathleen Doyle and Hannah Stewart also made crucial plays to help the Hawkeyes (28-6) clinch their first regional semifinal appearance since 2015.

Second-seeded Iowa faces No. 3 seed North Carolina State (27-5) in the Greensboro Region on Saturday.

“Without that supporting cast, Megan, as good as she is, we wouldn’t be in this position. There’s absolutely no way,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. They’ve “been marvelous, and Megan knows that. She’s going to be the first to acknowledge her teammates and let everybody know just how good her teammates are.”

Meyer, the 2016 Iowa Miss Basketball from Mason City, has been a valuable contributor since the day she arrived on campus. Meyer hit four 3s in 2017 to help the Hawkeyes beat rival Iowa State on the road for the first time in 28 years, and this season she’s averaging 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Meyer has been taking advantage of opposing game plans focused on stifling Gustafson in the post of late, and she’s playing as well as she ever has because of it. Meyer is averaging 17 points a game and is 9 of 14 on 3s in the NCAA Tournament while playing 77 of 80 minutes.

“She’s really hot right now, and she’s confident,” Gustafson said of Meyer. “That really frustrates teams, because they think they have a game plan of just hanging out inside. But they can’t do that anymore. They have to pay attention to other things — especially on the perimeter — and that what makes us so hard to guard.

After struggling as everyone did except for Gustafson and Meyer in a 66-61 first-round win over 15th-seeded Mercer, Doyle bounced back in the win over the Tigers. Doyle, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, scored 15 points while starring in a defensive plan that stifled Mizzou star Sophie Cunningham.

And though fellow starting guard Tania Davis has struggled so far, she made a huge 3 as soon as the Tigers went to a zone defense to help in a 23-4 run that keyed the win.

Stewart, Gustafson’s “post buddy” according to Bluder, was huge in the Mercer victory. She scored on three straight attempts in the fourth quarter as Iowa rallied to avoid what would have been the second-biggest upset in the history of the women’s tournament.

“Hannah means a lot. She’s kind of like our unsung hero,” Davis said of Stewart, who is averaging 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. “Hannah has done a great job of finding her role.”

Iowa hasn’t been to the Elite Eight since 1993. But Gustafson and her teammates are in perhaps the best position yet to return there. Hawkeyes fans have taken notice, as Iowa set a tournament attendance record for first and second-round games last weekend at 23,096.

“I think everybody kind of fell in love with this team, and it’s easy to do,” Bluder said. “It really is once you get to know them.”