IOWA CITY — Lisa Bluder actually has to put it into the practice plan.
Megan Gustafson will not be in at a certain point during Iowa’s workouts.
Bluder, the Hawkeyes’ women’s basketball coach, knows she can’t do without Gustafson, her 6-3 center who has been the post presence her program has needed for so long.
But Bluder also has been around long enough to know the reality — you can’t wear out your best player.
“Human nature isn’t to go as hard as you can every single second of a three-hour practice,” Bluder said. “It just isn’t. She does it. I’ve never had as hard of a worker as that.
“She’ll just keep going and going. At some point that becomes a little detrimental then.”
It’s something Bluder has seen ever since Gustafson, a junior, arrived on campus from Port Wing, Wis.
“I think that is, it’s that mentality of never giving up,” Bluder said. “She just came here with those principles. A lot of people you have to teach that to. That’s not her, she had that when she got here.”
It’s what has allowed Gustafson to thrive against the constant pressure of the Hawkeyes’ competition. Gustafson averaged 18.5 points and 10.1 rebounds last season as a sophomore, on her way to first-team All-Big Ten honors, but that came against an every-night dose of double-teams and whatever kind of defense could be thrown her way.
“Having that competition against us every day, having those double teams, having those great players go against me, I mean, it can be frustrating,” Gustafson said. “That is something I am working on, to keep being confident.
“The most important thing is keep going at it, keep working hard. Just keep getting after it, not worry about mistakes. That can get in people’s heads. It’s about moving on from mistakes, bad games. Not letting that get into your head is so important.”
Bluder, who first saw Gustafson on the AAU circuit, took a trip to tiny Port Wing to see her play high school basketball. She saw Gustafson playing against constant pressure, but that was against players almost a half-foot shorter.
“Everybody was 5-8. So there would be three people around her, and she would go like this…” Bluder said, making it look like Gustafson was just swatting away insects, “and just (shoot) over the top of them. It was kind of funny to watch, but you weren’t sure if she could do that at this level. You would hope that she can, you think she can. AAU gives you more of that litmus test, because then she’s going against other big kids. And we saw there just how good she could be.”
Gustafson started 14 games during her freshman season, averaging 10.7 points and 6.8 rebounds. The defensive attention was greater as the year went on, and it continued into last season.
“I think it will be probably more of the same this year,” Gustafson said, without the least bit of frustration or annoyance. “It’s something I’m used to. It’s just keeping confident, never wavering. I wouldn’t say there’s any particular secret to it.”
“She’s just such a tough girl,” guard Kathleen Doyle said. “Tough mentally, tough physically. That could psyche a player out, having a double-team on her. But she just does her thing, and gets buckets. That’s all I can say. She gets buckets.”
Gustafson had 18 double-doubles last season, tied for 10th best in NCAA Division I play. Her field-goal percentage of .647 was fifth-best nationally.
“If you can throw it up to the basket, it’s like an automatic assist,” Doyle said. “Cannot complain there, she’s an awesome player. It’s clutch for us to have such a great player. She’s automatic. When she misses, it’s rare. It’s like, ‘Oh, she missed. What happened? That’s strange.’”
“The thing that changed between her freshman and sophomore year was she had confidence,” Bluder said. “She knew she belonged.”
That, Bluder said, comes from the work she put in.
Now, if she just could get her to rest.