At this stage in the NCAA Tournament, there is no team still standing that does not boast exemplary talent across the roster. That said, most of the headline players in the Greensboro regional do their work in one specific area of the court: the paint.
Both Sweet 16 games today will likely be decided by battles down low. In the early match up, age and experience will come face-to-face with preternaturally talented youth as Iowa’s Megan Gustafson squares off against North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane.
Gustafson has spent her collegiate career racking up a litany of awards, honors, and records. The senior big and current Wooden and Leslie Award finalist has led the Hawkeyes to a 24-6 record and their first round of 16 appearance since 2015. Gustafson is nigh unstoppable on the block. She can score facing up, back-to-the-basket, and seemingly from other vectors that only she can envision and execute.
“I could write a book right now. It’s hard to put into just a few sentences,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said when asked to describe her star player’s game. “Megan is just a tremendous player … she’s a double-double machine. She not only scores, but she rebounds for us. She finishes up the defense, [she does] an unbelievable job on the defensive glass.”
Gustafson leads the nation in points per game (28) and field goal percentage (70.1), is a player who demands a double-team on almost every possession. The Hawkeyes’ offensive fulcrum is equally formidable on the other end of the floor. She is second in the nation in defensive rebounds (10.6; her 13.5 total boards is good for third) and averages a solid 1.8 blocks to boot. Not especially highly recruited coming in, Gustafson is quick to credit her growth to Iowa’s overall ethos.
“I’ve developed over the years, thanks to my coaches and my team always trying to push me to be the best player I can be,” Gustafson said.
Wes Moore, whose North Carolina State Wolfpack will face her in the next game, did not mince words about the challenge of facing Gustafson.
“We’ve obviously had a couple of days to prepare, but you know, there’s no stopping her,” Moore said.” It’s just a matter of hoping you can slow her down a little bit.”
The player tasked with “slowing [Gustafson] down ” will be Cunane. Forced into a starting role late in the season due to injuries, the freshman quickly proved herself capable of tremendous play on both ends of the floor. Since becoming a full-time starter, Cunane has averaged 17.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on the way to All-ACC Freshman Team honors. Cunane has an incredibly well-developed game already. At 6-5 with a killer wingspan, she has proved herself an invaluable post presence for the Wolfpack.
“She was already making contributions,” Moore said of his freshman phenom. “But I think with the injury of Erika Cassell, she knew: ‘Now I have to do even more.'”
“It’s very cool to be home,” Cunane, who grew up just outside of Greensboro, said. Her mindset is exhlirated and optimistic in her first Tourney run. “It’s been so exciting, so thrilling, just every single part of it.”
Cunane has already faced her share of fearsome post adversaries this year, but Gustafson presents a different echelon of challenge entirely.
“She’s a very aggressive player around the rim, and she can hit an outside shot too,” Cunane said. “My plan is just to play the best defense I can, try to deny her so she can’t even get the ball, because she finishes well as soon as she touches it.”
That’s a tall order, but Cunane is already drawing favorable comparisons to her opponent from the mouths of the opposing player and coach alike.
“I think she’s got better body balance than Megan had when she was a freshman,” Bluder said. “She is definitely one of the best up-and-coming centers in America.”
Gustafson said her counterpart is reminiscent of her own, younger self.
“[Cunane] has really great hands … and she has great finish which is always really important for post players. I do see some similarities in myself when I was younger,” she said.
In the second game, No. 1 overall seed Baylor will pit the incredible front line of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox against South Carolina’s Alexis Jennings and an impressive rotation of other posts, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan in particular.
Brown (15.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 55 total blocks) and Cox (12.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 84 swats) may be the most dominant front-court combo in the nation. Like Gustafson, Brown is a Wooden and Leslie Award finalist. Cox is a McClain Award and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalist. That’s a stupefying amount of talent in down low. They are protean and elastic, capable of adjusting to any situation, and devastating in every circumstance.
“Kalani and Cox, you think are back to the basket post players, they are really not,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “They can face up and shoot it. Their size is just bigger. They work so well together, because a lot of it is, they pass to each other well.”
The Lady Bears beat the breaks off of South Carolina 94-69 earlier this season, but they aren’t taking anything for granted in the rematch.
“I think they are going to throw a lot of different lineups at us. They had some players who are playing more minutes now that didn’t play against us like Cuevas-Moore and their other post player, Harrigan,” Cox said.
Brown echoed the sentiment.
“I think they are going to try to be more physical, especially with us in the paint,” she said. “But it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”
The Gamecocks appear ready to answer the call this time around. Jennings is averaging 11.4 ppg and 6.4 boards, and her cohort of bigs are doing their part, especially Harrigan, who has put up 10.3 points and 5.1 boards in a mixture of starter and bench minutes. Now healthier and more experienced than they were when they last played Baylor, South Carolina is prepared to put up a fight.
“We’re a team in which I think our players …they have a better understanding of how we need to play. I they are locked into our game plan,” coach Dawn Staley said.
That game plan will start in the paint, and Jennings agrees her team is up to the task.
“I think our emphasis is just to be physical with [Baylor],” she said. “You know, it’s going to be a very physical game and we feel like as long as we go out there and compete … I feel like we’re in a better position to give them our best shot.”