IOWA CITY — Iowa didn’t go to the bullpen when it needed a closer on Tuesday. The Hawkeyes instead asked do-it-all point guard Mike Gesell to engineer victory against Nebraska.
Gesell, a senior, did just that in the Hawkeyes’ 77-66 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He finished with 22 points and 10 assists for his first career double-double. He hit five of seven shots and sank 11 of 13 free throws in 35 minutes. Perhaps most impressive, all but one of those free throws took place in the second half. He made six of eight in the final 1 minute, 23 seconds.
“He essentially controlled the game is what he did,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said.
Gesell has flashed in his previous years with a few peak games followed with some valley-like performances. But this year, he’s playing his best basketball when the team needs it the most.
Against top-ranked Michigan State, Gesell scored a career-high 25 points. Like Nebraska, the Spartans repeatedly fouled Gesell, who knocked down 11 of 13 free throws. He had three assists and two steals to only one turnover in 33 minutes to pace the Hawkeyes to an 83-70 win.
Gesell was equally effective at Purdue last Saturday. He scored seven points, but he added seven assists and a career-best seven rebounds. The Hawkeyes rallied from a 19-point deficit to win 70-63 for the first time at Mackey Arena since 2006. Tuesday, Gesell became the first Iowa player since Jeff Horner to record 10 or more assists in three games during a season.
“He just played great,” Iowa senior forward Jarrod Uthoff said. “The way he moved the ball, the way he attacked, penetrated, kicked out and scored for himself, it was fantastic.”
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Gesell has played in 116 games with 112 starts. McCaffrey has stuck with him through both Gesell’s growing pains and success. The coach identified Gesell as a program-defining talent when he played at South Sioux City, Neb. McCaffery famously watched every AAU game involving Gesell, center Adam Woodbury and current North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige during the summer of 2011. McCaffery recruited Gesell to become his all-everything point guard, of which he has developed this year.
“Nobody saw him more than I did, so I knew exactly what he was going to be,” McCaffery said. “He was terrific for us when he first got here and the more he’s really studied it because he was a big-time scorer in high school. And I pretty much asked him to be the point guard and to get us into our stuff and understand time and score. And think of the guys he goes against night in and night out since he’s been here, and what you’re seeing is his development. He’s in great shape physically, he’s in a great place mentally, and everybody feels better when he’s got the ball.”
More was required from Gesell on Tuesday because fellow senior guard Anthony Clemmons was hampered with a hip injury. Clemmons (also known as Sapp) was a gametime decision and fought through pain for 17 minutes but lacked his usual burst. That left nearly all of the point guard responsibilities to Gesell.
“I felt like Sapp’s a guy that when he’s out there, he helps me control the tempo,” Gesell said. “As guards you really want to control the pace of the game. It makes it easy for me when Sapp’s out there, too, because you’ve got two guards on the court, two extra coaches on the court. He just wasn’t quite himself at times. He showed some tremendous toughness playing through his injury. I felt like I had to be a little bit more aggressive and control the pace.”
No. 23 Iowa (12-3) has earned its first 3-0 start in Big Ten play since 2002-03. Gesell has been a catalyst for that success.
“He reminds me of (Northwestern’s) Tre Demps, only a point guard instead of a scorer,” Nebraska Coach Tim Miles said. “He’ll create for himself like he did (Tuesday). He got fouled, made shots, tough shots, too. Made two tough ones at the end, then he goes out and gets 10 assists, too. Mike’s a really good player.”
2. UHL TIDE. After a rough start in exhibition play, Iowa sophomore Dominique Uhl has become a major contributor to the Hawkeyes’ success.
Uhl, who stands 6-foot-9, played primarily forward last year but has added center responsibilities. He bulked up, which has helped him bang in the post, but it hasn’t inhibited his perimeter prowess. Uhl has knocked down 14 of 29 3-point attempts this season (48.3 percent). In three Big Ten games, Uhl has drilled five of seven.
“He seems to be able to make really key 3s when we need them,” McCaffery said.
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With his team trailing Nebraska 10-0, Uhl scored the Hawkeyes’ first basket on a turnaround jumper. He tied the game later in the sequence on a 3-pointer from the top of the key. In all, Uhl scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I’m just trying to do whatever they need me to do, whether it’s a rebound or a made 3,” said Uhl, who grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. “I‘m definitely comfortable. I feel like I’m more comfortable playing outside. I’ll play wherever the team needs me to play.”
3. 3-POINT PROWESS. Iowa’s 3-point shooting under McCaffery has waned at times from decent to poor. Three times the Hawkeyes finished 11th among Big Ten schools in 3-point shooting. But this year ain’t one of them.
Iowa currently ranks third in Big Ten 3-point shooting at 39.9 percent. That’s the highest number for the Hawkeyes since 1997-98, when the team ended the season at 40.1 percent. That year, Iowa had J.R. Koch (47.1 percent) and Kent McCausland (46.0) drilling everything from the perimeter. This year, Iowa’s success comes from its forwards.
Uthoff leads the team with 30 3-pointers with a percentage of 45.5. Freshman Nicholas Baer has hit 16 of 32 (50 percent). Uhl has knocked down 14 of 29. Guards Peter Jok (29 of 82, 35.4) and Gesell (10 of 20, 50.0) also are prolific. Last year’s leader was Clemmons (37.3 percent), and he’s struggled this year (29.7).
Iowa’s best 3-point year under McCaffery was in 2011-12, when the Hawkeyes shot 37.3 percent. Guard Matt Gatens was the primary reason for the shooting success that year.
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