By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
GREENSBORO, N.C. – After sweeping the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, there’s one thing standing in the way of the Lady Bears’ path to the Final Four — the No. 2 seed Iowa Hawkeyes and their ESPNW Player of the Year, center Megan Gustafson.
The big point of discussion at this NCAA Regional has been the post matchup between senior centers Kalani Brown and Gustafson and forwards Lauren Cox and Hannah Stewart.
In their Sweet 16 matchups, Gustafson and Stewart combined for 23 rebounds and 43 points in a 79-61 win over North Carolina State, while Brown and Cox had 24 rebounds and 35 points in the Lady Bears’ win over South Carolina.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey does not want her team to focus all their attention on Gustafson.
“They are too good. Too balanced to focus on one particular player,” Mulkey said. “I think it’s the same way with Gustafson. You know, everybody talks about her but that team is not a one-person show. And they all play well together. They complement each other well. So there’s not just one, if you stop this one you’re going to win the ballgame. They are too good.”
Mulkey’s team isn’t the only offense that’s hot. Against NC State, the Hawkeyes shot over 54 percent from the floor. Yet, the Big Ten team will have a challenge against a Lady Bears’ defense that has held opponents to under 50 percent shooting in 75 of 76 games. Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said the key to the matchup is staying balanced.
“Everybody talks about Baylor’s offense inside and everything. Their defense is remarkable. I mean, what they’re holding people to, that’s absolutely incredible,” Bluder said. “We’re not going to change anything. We have to do what we do best. You saw it yesterday, we have to have other people step up. It can’t just be our inside players and I thought yesterday we had good balance. I think we’re really going to have to rely on that balance tomorrow.”
Big Ten and ESPNW Player of the Year Gustafson leads the nation in field goal percentage (69.6), points per game (28.0) and two other categories. Obviously an imposing threat to Baylor’s defense, Cox said she sees a lot of similarities between the two teams’ posts.
“I think it’s going to take both [Brown and I] to stop her,” Cox said. “She’s a good post player. They have a good duo inside with Stewart and her. They run kind of some of the same stuff we do with the lob plays and kind of like our main offense look, we call it Baylor, but just like that high-low passing. So I think it will be a good matchup.”
Cox and Brown come off the Sweet 16 matchup against South Carolina with double-double games. Every starter for the Lady Bears scored in double digits, including Didi Richards with a career-high 25 points, while Chloe Jackson and Juicy Landrum added 12 points apiece.
Iowa junior guard Kathleen Doyle says the plan against the Lady Bears’ offense is to challenge it.
“They definitely have a great group of guards that we’ll have to try and disrupt defensively,” Doyle said. “All we can do is try to make their life as hard as possible. It’s all about bringing that intensity.”
Cox countered and said that Baylor’s unpredictability will bring a challenge.
“I think that’s what sets us apart from some people. You is never know who is going to go off,” Cox said. “Didi, people play off of her because they don’t think she has an offensive game. She proved that last night. … So it can be any one of us.”
A win would give Iowa its first Final Four appearance since 1993, or Baylor’s first since the 2012 national championship run. The two teams will tip off on Monday night at 6 p.m. CT in Greensboro N.C.