By Blake Jorgensen
PORT WING, WI (March 23, 2018) — Iowa basketball star Megan Gustafson, the Big Ten Player of the Year, saw her season end with a loss in Los Angeles during the first round of the NCAA tournament. While it was an imperfect way to end to the season, the location itself was perfect. Her story has the makings of a Hollywood script.
Gustafson, whose family attends Mission Covenant Church in Poplar, Wisconsin, has been one of the most dominant collegiate players in the country this season. The 6’3″ junior was a major reason the Hawkeyes made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
She led the nation in points per game (25.6), field goal percentage (66.8), and points per possession (1.302). She was the only player in the country averaging at least 25 points and 12 rebounds per game. She was named Big Ten Player of the Week a record nine times.
Although Iowa lost to Creighton in the first round, 76-70, Gustafson showed her mettle, finishing with 29 points and 17 rebounds while shooting 75 percent from the floor.
Gustafson nurtured her talent in Port Wing, Wisconsin, a town so small it makes small towns look not small, to borrow a phrase from “The Longest Yard.” When asked if her hometown has a stoplight, Gustafson replied, “There isn’t even a stoplight in all of Bayfield County.” The entire Port Wing population of less than 400 could fit in the lower part of Macbride Auditorium on the University of Iowa Pentacrest.
When Gustafson was in eighth grade, only four girls went out for the basketball team. Unable to put a full team on the court, the girls’ only choice was to merge with the boys’ team.
In that context Gustafson thrived. According to her dad, Clendon, she was the second leading scorer on the team. At one point, an opposing coach complained that she was being too rough on the boys.
It was also the first time Gustafson thought about playing basketball after high school. “It was pretty cool to play with the boys,” she said. “That was when I knew I really wanted to play college ball.”
Gustafson continued her dominance at South Shore High School. Clendon coached Megan and her older sister, Emily, when Megan was a sophomore and Emily was a senior. Megan led the state in points scored, Emily led the state in rebounding, and another player on the team led the state in assists. The trio took South Shore to the state tournament.
Coaches across the country noticed. Her pastor, Darrell Nelson, recalls, “She received 17 Division I scholarship offers in high school, and coaches were so desperate to work the angles that both I and our youth pastor at church received calls about her. We even had one coach on a recruiting trip come to church and worship with us to show their interest in Gustafson. The coach told me, ‘She is 6’3” tall, left handed, and runs like a gazelle.'”
In the end, she chose Iowa. “The coaches are very family-oriented people and care about me more than just as a player but as a person,” she said.
Gustafson had a solid first year, starting 14 games and averaging nearly 11 points and seven rebounds per game. She took a big step her sophomore year when she started every game and averaged a double-double with 18.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Her performance led her to be named first-team All-Big Ten. Still, the team didn’t perform as expected. After reaching the Sweet 16 in 2015, the year before Gustafson arrived, Iowa missed the tournament her first two years. She knew she needed to add to her repertoire.
“Everyone knows I am predominantly left-handed, so my right hand is something I wanted to work on,” she said. “I would do a bunch of workouts in the summer where I would do post moves with my left hand then double it with my right.”
I’m playing for someone bigger than myself: God, my teammates, my family, and coaches, so that definitely helps keep me grounded.
She even watched highlights of Kareem Abdul-Jabar on YouTube to study the post moves and hook shots that helped the Hall of Famer become the leading scorer in NBA history.
In fact, Abdul-Jabar is a perfect comparison for Gustafson. Today’s basketball values versatile stretch forwards like Connecticut’s Katie Lou Samuelson or Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics, players tall enough to score in the post while able to stretch the floor with outside shooting proficiency.
Gustafson, on the other hand, has been the most efficient offensive player in the country despite scoring almost all her points in the post. She wears it as a badge of honor. “It is something I take pride in because it is something I have worked hard on here at Iowa,” she said. “I will get pretty upset in practice if I miss a shot. The reason I shoot such a high percentage is because I am never satisfied.”
Gustafson’s improved play is not the only reason she is such an important part of the team. Her attitude on and off the court has received the praise of her head coach, Lisa Bluder.
On VoteGustafson.com, a website built by the Iowa athletic department to promote Gustafson for postseason awards, a quote from Bluder says, “I never get tired of talking about Megan. I feel like sometimes I gush over her like she is my own child. Not only does she work incredibly hard for what she gets, but she is so humble, and she is such a great teammate.”
Gustafson’s attitude, much like her skills on the court, was developed growing up in Port Wing as well as attending Mission Covenant. Growing up in church and attending Bible studies in college has helped Gustafson stay true to herself with all the accolades coming her way. It would be easy to get caught up in the attention, but she realizes her journey is bigger than herself. “I don’t play for myself,” she said. “I’m playing for someone bigger than myself: God, my teammates, my family, and coaches, so that definitely helps keep me grounded.”
The accolades do keep coming. USA Today named her to the second team and ESPNW named her a third-team All-American though some people thought she deserved to be ranked higher.
But Gustafson’s thoughts, as always, have been more about the team. “I think a lot of people don’t know about our team and Iowa women’s basketball,” she said. It’s them she wants in the spotlight.
For Gustafson, everyone gets equal billing.
Blake Jorgensen graduated from the University of Iowa in 2015 with a degree in journalism and sports studies. He attends the Evangelical Covenant Church in Sloan, Iowa.