IOWA CITY — A few weeks ago, Iowa took a big lead into halftime against in-state rival (and then-No. 2) Iowa State, only to squander it in the second stanza and lose in the late seconds.
The same refrain has played several times against Tuesday night’s opponent Michigan State, as well.
But this time, on this night, the song had a different ending. The Hawkeyes outworked and outran the No. 1 Spartans (13-1, 0-1 Big Ten) from start to finish en route to an 83-70 victory in front of a raucous Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“We had a tough one against Iowa State. You can do two things from that: you can learn from it or you can dwell on it. I’m so happy for my guys,” said senior guard Mike Gesell, who had a career-high 25 points. “I felt like we really learned from that one and we were mature about it. We really turned it around tonight. It feels good to hold onto that second-half lead and really finish a game out right.”
Holding on was something Iowa hadn’t really been able to do in this situation before. As Coach Fran McCaffery pointed out after the game, they did hold on against Florida State and Drake after having leads and fending off comebacks. But, with due respect to the Seminoles and Bulldogs, those weren’t games against highly-ranked or rivalry teams.
The Hawkeyes (10-3, 1-0) got over a massive hump mentally, setting aside all other positives that come with this kind of win.
They learned how to win a game like this and showed the mental toughness their coach talked about earlier in the week. Playing confident and with purpose won the day.
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“(We learned) we’ve got to keep attacking. Just because you have a lead, you can’t play not to lose, you’ve got to play to win,” Gesell said. “Taking care of the ball at the end — we got the ball in bounds and only had one or two turnovers down the stretch. We got to the free throw line and made free throws when they were fouling us. Just all the little things you need to do to win a game down the stretch.”
Effort was the key word after the game for both coaches and players.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo couldn’t have been more disgusted with his team’s. Reeling from the death of his father on Monday, Izzo had hoped his team would honor his dad with max effort, but he was left with that as “the most disappointing part of the night.”
He too saw a different level of resolve and a different look to this Iowa team, as compared to games in the past where the Spartans were able to assert their will and carry themselves to victory no matter the circumstances.
“I think that’s the toughest Iowa team I’ve seen,” Izzo said. “I think they’re tougher than (McCaffery’s) teams have been. I think Fran coaches like I do, and sometimes players — this time we didn’t respond. They’re a better shooting team, even though Uthoff didn’t have a good night. There’s no question Jok is better. They got every loose ball.
“Make sure you take nothing away from Iowa. We’ve beaten them pretty good the last 10 years. I thought we got some of our own medicine.”
Iowa’s effort had its biggest yield on defense, where Anthony Clemmons blanketed Bryn Forbes and stifled Michigan State’s remaining best player — with leading scorer Denzel Valentine sidelined. Both coaches lauded the senior’s play, as did each of his teammates.
The Hawkeyes’ complete 40-minute performance was what pleased McCaffery the most, and what he pointed to as the biggest reason they were finally able to get a win of this caliber.
“We really sustained effort and paid attention to detail with regard to the game plan,” McCaffery said. “So I think we disrupted their offense quite a bit. We mixed the man and the zone, a little bit of pressure, and then when we had foul trouble, I thought the guys that came in really picked us up.
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“We didn’t give (Forbes) any clean looks, we didn’t give them anything in transition; we didn’t give them anything easy off down screens because they run a lot of stuff for him.”
If one play personified that effort, it was walk-on red-shirt freshman Nicholas Baer. Baer missed a wild layup in the first half, but as soon as he gathered himself up, he raced to the other end and blocked MSU guard Matt McQuaid’s 3-point attempt into the second row.
Plays like that that were missing in crucial moments of games like this in the past. But they were there on Tuesday night.
“I missed the layup and ran down because McQuaid is a great 3-point shooter and we didn’t want to give him any open looks. I just tried to make a play,” said Baer, who had 11 points. “You can’t control which shots go in, but you can control your effort, and that’s what I was trying to do.”
It was the first win against a No. 1 team since Iowa beat Connecticut at Madison Square Garden in 1999, and the first in Iowa City — at The Fieldhouse or Carver-Hawkeye Arena — in program history.
But McCaffery was predictably levelheaded about it all. His team may have just cleared a massive hurdle, but he’s more concerned about sustaining the jump than admiring the accomplishment.
“It’s the first game in the Big Ten season. Celebrate tonight and go back to work tomorrow. It’s one win,” McCaffery said. “I would like to think it’s a great confidence builder in that sense, but we got another Top-10 team going Saturday. So, hopefully, we learned lessons of how to compete, how to execute, and how to not take a possession off, and we carry that over for Purdue.”
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