The rise of Hannah Stewart and the Hawkeyes

Submitted Photo Hannah Stewart (21) goes up strong for a close-range shot during Iowa’s 86-71 win over Michigan State on Feb. 7 in Iowa City, IA. Photo submitted by Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com.

They might have just been shredded pieces of paper, but to Hannah Stewart and the Hawkeyes, the colorful spectacle meant much more.

Confetti rained down on the hardwood of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, on March 10 as the University of Iowa women’s basketball team celebrated its Big Ten tournament title after a 90-76 win over Maryland. Players quickly grabbed their “Big Ten tournament champions” hats, shirts and towels to commemorate their accomplishment.

But, before the team cleared the court, Stewart had one last thing to check off her to-do list. The senior dropped to the floor and began doing a championship-style snow angel with the confetti. Her teammates laughed at the impromptu celebration and poured more of that sweet, shredded paper on her for good measure.

For Stewart, that priceless moment was four years in the making.

Back in 2015, Stewart was dominating the hardwood 800 miles away in Minot, North Dakota, as a member of the Bishop Ryan girls basketball team. The Class B powerhouse had just earned its third straight state title to cap off Stewart’s illustrious high school career.

Submitted Photo Iowa senior Hannah Stewart celebrates after the Hawkeyes’ 90-76 win over Maryland in the Big Ten tournament championship on March 10 in Indianapolis, IN. Photo submitted by Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com.

The 6-foot-2 senior averaged a monstrous 19.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 5.7 steals, 4.6 blocks and 4.3 assists in her final year with the Ryan Lions and was named North Dakota’s Miss Basketball in the process.

“I loved my North Dakota upbringing,” Stewart said. “I had a great support system. I’m proud to be from Minot, and I love being able to represent what North Dakota basketball and Class B basketball are all about.”

Ranked as the 15th-best forward in the country by ESPN HoopGurlz, Stewart had her pick of colleges to continue her basketball career.

The Hawkeyes immediately caught her attention.

“I wanted to experience the world a bit and get out there,” Stewart said. “Not that Iowa is that much different from North Dakota, but I still wanted to find myself. Iowa had such a family atmosphere…It just really made me feel at home.”

That’s when the incoming freshman got a rude awakening.

Stewart now found herself sharing the court with other high school legends from their respective hometowns, and playing time proved to be hard to come across. The freshman spent most nights watching from the sideline and played a mere 27 minutes across 12 games.

Her sophomore year didn’t yield much of a change. Despite averaging 4.9 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, Stewart reached those numbers in just 9.8 minutes per contest.

Understandably, frustration began to build for the former North Dakota standout.

“I had a pretty big ego coming out of high school, and that got checked my first two years,” Stewart said. “There were times where I questioned if this was the right place for me because I knew that I could have gone somewhere else and started right away. But I kept faith, and I had coaches and teammates that kept encouraging me.”

Determined to carve out a niche with the team, Stewart upped her intensity in the offseason leading up to her junior year. Hours after the final whistle in practice, she could still be found working on her shot in the gym.

The Iowa coaching staff took notice. Stewart earned an average of 17.2 minutes per game on the hardwood and took advantage, reaching single-season bests in points (235), rebounds (145), assists (46), blocks (24) and steals (35).

Although she didn’t start any of the games, the junior’s contributions off the bench helped the Hawkeyes to a 24-8 record and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015.

No. 6-seeded Iowa’s postseason came to an end in the opening round with a 76-70 loss to No. 11-seeded Creighton on March 17, 2018. Despite the early out, the postseason experience was invaluable for Stewart and company.

“(The NCAA tournament) is so awesome,” Stewart said. “Stakes are high, and it’s do or die. You have to leave it all on the court. We were really excited to get back there and show what we got.”

Sure enough, Stewart and the Hawkeyes used that experience as fuel the following year and posted a 23-6 regular-season record. Stewart averaged 11.3 points and 6.7 boards in 28.5 minutes per game and started all 29 contests in her senior season.

After entering the Big Ten tournament as the No. 2 seed and cruising past their first two matches, all that stood in the way of the Hawkeyes’ first conference tournament title since 2001 was top-seeded Maryland.

Iowa wasted no time getting to work.

Teammate Megan Gustafson exploded for 11 points in the opening frame, and Stewart added a pair of buckets down low to help give the Hawkeyes a 25-15 edge at the first break. Iowa never looked back.

Leading 90-76 with time winding down in the fourth quarter, teammate Kathleen Doyle split a pair of Maryland defenders with seven seconds left in regulation and retreated to half court to dribble out the remaining ticks.

Stewart, sensing the impending celebration, was already jumping up and down right beside her.

The final buzzer sounded, and Stewart embraced Doyle as the guard threw the ball into the air. The rest of the team quickly joined them on the hardwood as the crowd applauded.

Stewart finished with eight points and nine boards in the victory.

“That was a goal for us since the beginning of the year,” Stewart said. “When that confetti came down at the buzzer and we realized it was for us, it was incredible. To have all that hard work pay off is the best feeling ever.”

In addition to securing the conference tournament title, the win also earned the Hawkeyes a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, allowing them to host the first two rounds.

Iowa will take on No. 15-seeded Mercer tomorrow at 1 p.m. with a chance to keep the magic going and advance to its first Round of 32 since 2014.

“We’re having so much fun as a team this year,” Stewart said. “We really do love each other so much, so we don’t want it to be over. We want to keep it going and just see how far we can make it.”

The 15,000 fans at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena won’t be the only people cheering on Stewart, though, as the senior will also have the support of those back in Minot.

It’s this support that holds a special place for Stewart as she continues to defy the odds and make those back home proud.

“It’s cool how people (from Minot) are still following me now that I’m playing in Iowa,” Stewart said. “And I think it’s awesome that it doesn’t matter if you’re from a small town. You shouldn’t use that as an excuse. No matter where you’re from, dreams can come true.”

Justin Martinez covers Minot High School sports and Class B high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @JTheSportsDude.