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Ethan native Gustafson thriving for Red Raiders

Northwestern's Darbi Gustafson, left, goes up for a shot during a Great Plains Athletic Conference women's basketball game against Briar Cliff earlier this season in Orange City, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Northwestern College Athletics).

ORANGE CITY, Iowa — Darbi Gustafson only continues to improve for Northwestern College women's basketball team.

With more than 70 college games now in her ledger, the former Ethan standout has taken her game up another notch this year. Twelve games into her junior season, the 6-foot-1 center is averaging 17.3 points (29th in the nation) and 8.42 rebounds (32nd in the nation) per game. She's shooting 57 percent from the field (12th in the nation) and has helped the No. 18-ranked Red Raiders start 8-4 and 5-1 in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

"I've just gotten a lot more comfortable with the program," Gustafson said. "I've gotten a lot of experience under my belt and that's gotten me more comfortable with the system (Northwestern head) coach (Chris) Yaw has in place. I'm having a lot of fun."

After averaging 6.4 points per game as a freshman and 12.1 points per game as a sophomore, the 6-foot-1 center eclipsed the 20-point mark five times in her first seven games this season. She poured in a career-high 24 points in a 98-53 victory over Doane on Nov. 18 in Orange City, Iowa. On Saturday, Gustafson scored a game-high 16 points in Northwestern's 75-61 road win over the College of Saint Mary.

"There's an even greater confidence than she played with a year ago," Northwestern head coach Yaw said. "So much of the credit goes to her for the time she's put in, whether it was in the spring or fall on campus or during the summer. She's really grown her game and that's given her a base of confidence."

Gustafson said she's learned how to adjust to the speed of the game and learned to value each possession. Since scoring 20 or more points five times in her first seven games, Gustafson has been held to 13, 19, 14, 11 and 16 points, but she added she's not seeing anything differently from defenses.

"I wouldn't say they are adjusting to me. They are adjusting to a lot of people," Gustafson said. "We have Kassidy DeJong, who is a great player, and Renee Maneman, who is a great point guard. I wouldn't say they have been just keying on me, but they're paying attention to other players on our team as well as me."

DeJong, a 5-foot-10 guard, leads Northwestern in scoring with an average of 18.3 points per game, while Maneman averages 7.3 assists per game. Combined with Gustafson in the post, the trio has the Red Raiders causing plenty of problems.

"We have a great group of girls and great team chemistry," Gustafson said. "My teammates have done a great job of getting me the ball when they can and playing unselfish. On any given night, anyone can score."

With 101 rebounds in 12 games, Gustafson is second in the GPAC in rebounds per game. In her 71 career games, she averages 6.4 rebounds per game and Yaw said Gustafson has always had a knack for cleaning up the glass.

"The rebounding is either a credit to her or her high school coach because she was doing that early," Yaw said. "She just has a nose for the ball in that area."

After helping the Ethan girls basketball team to a 26-0 record and the Rustlers' first Class B state championship her senior year of high school (2014-15), Gustafson choose to play at Northwestern. It's a decision Gustafson said she's happy she made.

"There's been steady growth through her entire career," Yaw said. "What she has been able to impact our program off the court has been special too. She has a rock-solid character foundation so she leads very well and she relates well."

Last year, Northwestern reached the NAIA Division II national tournament for the first time in three years. Returning all five starters and their top eight scorers, the Red Raiders entered this season with high expectations and Gustafson has been delivering.

"I'm really proud of her," Yaw said. "She's one of those young ladies that has fallen in love with Northwestern and her teammates. She's motivated and she's gotten better every year. That's been fun to see."

Northwestern plays No. 2 Concordia at 4 p.m. Friday in Orange City, Iowa. The Red Raiders host Dakota Wesleyan University on Jan. 10 and face in the Tigers again at the Corn Palace on Feb. 14.