Heartbreak Hawkeyes: The higher they fly, the more painful the fall
IOWA CITY — When it comes to Iowa basketball’s past glories, the higher the altitude, the more painful the postseason fall.
The Heartbreak Hawkeyes have qualified for 25 NCAA tournaments and three Final Fours. But no national championship banners hang at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Over the years, the names, games and situations have become infamous. For those that lived it, it’s something they never forget.
In 1956, Iowa fell to future NBA legend Bill Russell and his San Francisco Dons in the Hawkeyes’ only title-game appearance. In 1970, Ralph Miller’s Six-Pack finished the Big Ten season 14-0, only to lose on a last-second tip-in. Ten years later, guard Ronnie Lester’s knee clipped the Hawkeyes in their most recent Final Four appearance. In 1987, Iowa led UNLV by 20 points in the Elite Eight only to lose by three points.
"I’ve probably thought about this every day of my life since it’s happened."
- Jeff Horner
On 2006 NCAA Tournament first-round exit
There are many others, from Northwestern State’s last-second 3-pointer that punched out No. 3-seeded Iowa in 2006 to Lute Olson’s unfortunate timeout in a 1981 loss against Wichita State. Iowa has succumbed to big-time performances (N.C. State’s Rodney Monroe’s 40 points in double overtime in 1989), last-second shots (Toledo’s Stan Joplin in 1979) and to eventual national champions (five times). There were tough moments at the free-throw line (a 55-54 loss to Villanova 1983) and hard-fought what-ifs (the late-season slide of 2014).
Every exit is painful for players, especially the seniors.
“I’ve probably thought about this every day of my life since it’s happened,” said Jeff Horner, Iowa’s point guard in 2006. “It’s definitely heartbreaking.”
But they wouldn’t trade the experience for a softer letdown, either.
“If you’re afraid of bad endings, then don’t play,” said Iowa radio broadcaster Bobby Hansen, who played at Iowa from 1979-1983. “Ultimately that’s part of it. You don’t prepare for it.”
Each of Iowa’s postseason losses were difficult in their time, but four stand above the rest: 1970, 1980, 1987 and 2006.
For longtime Iowa fans, Jacksonville’s 104-103 Sweet Sixteen win against Iowa in 1970 still feels like a gut punch. That year the Hawkeyes set a Big Ten record — that stands to this day — by averaging 102.9 points a game. They won the league title outright and scored more than 100 points in 14 different games.
Four players averaged more than 17 points a game, including John Johnson at a program-record 27.9. Johnson also set Iowa records for points in a game (49), field goals (289) and points in a season (699).
“Downtown” Freddy Brown, who later joined Johnson as NBA champions in Seattle, posted 27.6 points a game and 268 field goals in 1971. To go along with their scoring prowess, the Hawkeyes had a reputation as the best passing team in college basketball.
Against a team loaded with future NBA players Rex Morgan and Artis Gilmore — who nearly picked Iowa a season earlier — the Hawkeyes forged ahead late by one point. Jacksonville had the ball and guard Vaughn Wedeking heaved up a desperation shot. Forward Pembrook Burrows III grabbed the rebound over Iowa’s Chad Calabria for the putback with two seconds left for the win.
“We were devastated,” said longtime basketball broadcaster Mac McCausland, who played at Iowa from 1964-68 and served as Iowa’s assistant freshman coach that year. “We thought we had a chance to win the national championship. So we go in the locker room and there was not a dry eye, including Ralph and the coaches.”
In those days, losing teams still played consolation games. Two days later Iowa faced Notre Dame and Austin Carr, who scored 61 and 52 points, respectively, in two previous NCAA games. The Hawkeyes rolled up 75 points in the first half and scored 52 field goals — still an NCAA tournament record — in a 121-106 win.
|Iowa vs. Notre Dame, 1970|
“This is what we were all about for four months,” McCausland said. “We could have been next week playing Bob Lanier and St. Bonaventure and we’d have won that game. Actually, they would have killed UCLA. The offense of that team, UCLA wasn’t quick enough to stay up with the ball and get great shots. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.”
In 1980, the Hawkeyes were a year removed from a Big Ten regular-season title but still qualified for the NCAA tournament. Senior guard Ronnie Lester missed 15 games with knee injuries, but Iowa was 15-1 when he played. And he was healthy entering the NCAA tournament.
In Greensboro, N.C., Iowa topped Virginia Commonwealth in the first round before knocking off North Carolina State. Iowa then beat Syracuse and Georgetown in Philadelphia to secure a Final Four bid.
“I think we just kind of hung on long enough to get ourselves in the tournament,” said current Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw, who was a graduate assistant in 1980 and lettered at Iowa in 1978 and 1979. “Ronnie came back toward the end and was playing great and played great all the way through the tournament.”
In an NCAA semifinal against Louisville, Lester knocked down his first four shots for 10 points in 12 minutes. Then Lester reinjured his knee and didn’t return. Louisville, which was led by Darrell Griffith’s 34 points, beat Iowa 80-72 en route to the national title.
The hypotheticals still ring for Iowa players and coaches more than 35 years later. Hansen, who was a freshman guard that year, lived through four straight years of tough endings. Yet that season stings the most.
“You felt invincible and there was no way you were going to lose,” Hansen said. “That probably was the hardest one of all. Senior year (a 55-54 Sweet Sixteen loss to Villanova), you kind of gave everything you had. With the injury to Ronnie in the Final Four, you always kind of felt like, ‘What if? What if you still had the full contingent?’”
In his inaugural season at Iowa, Tom Davis’ 1986-87 team opened 18-0 and was ranked No. 1 nationally. The Hawkeyes finished 14-4 in Big Ten play and were seeded second in the West Region.
Iowa breezed past Santa Clara in the opener then outfought UTEP to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In one of the tournament’s better games, the Hawkeyes battled No. 3 seed Oklahoma to overtime. With two seconds left and the Hawkeyes trailing by one point, guard Kevin Gamble drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Iowa a 93-91 victory. The win sent Iowa to the Elite Eight and a date with top-ranked UNLV.
With the Final Four on the line, Iowa sizzled with 58 first-half points. The Hawkeyes led 62-44 with less than 18 minutes remaining. Then the Runnin’ Rebels mounted their comeback, outscoring Iowa 27-4 in a nine-minute stretch. Iowa had a chance, down one point with 14 seconds left, but Gamble’s lob pass to Brad Lohaus bounced off the backboard and out of bounds. After two UNLV free throws, Gamble’s game-tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
It was a shocking defeat for a 30-win team that had eight NBA draft picks. It’s still difficult for players to accept nearly 30 years later.
“We were up 18 points with 18 minutes left,” said Les Jepsen, a freshman center that year. “We could have gone to the Final Four and who knows? If you just play well, we could have won the whole thing. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the game, we didn’t go to the Final Four.”
Teams eliminated before the national semifinals often are overlooked, while those who reach the Final Four are immortalized.
“You were christened, you went to the Super Bowl, you went to the World Series. We didn’t make it there,” Jepsen said. “We should have, but we didn’t go. Unfortunately as time goes on, we didn’t go. We had a lot of talent, but we didn’t go to the Final Four, which is tough because there’s only so many chances to do that.”
2006: Northwestern State
Steve Alford’s topsy-turvy coaching career at Iowa produced one brilliant season that ended with a shocking flameout. His 2005-06 team was 17-0 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa finished one game behind Ohio State for the league title, then upended the Buckeyes 67-60 to claim the Big Ten tournament title. Their 25 wins then were the second-most in school history. Iowa earned a No. 3 seed and faced 14th-seeded Northwestern State in Auburn Hills, Mich.
For most of the game, it was a typical early-round mismatch. The Hawkeyes cruised to a 17-point lead with eight minutes to go. Then Northwestern State sliced into Iowa’s lead and cut its deficit to two points in the final seconds. After retrieving a rebound in a frenetic final sequence, Jermaine Wallace sent a high-arcing shot over Iowa’s Adam Haluska before falling to the ground. The shot hit nothing but net, and the moment became another NCAA stunner.
“I think going on three years after I was done playing, I couldn’t even watch the NCAA tournament,” said Horner, now an assistant coach at North Dakota. “That’s how heartbreaking it was. I didn’t really watch it because I didn’t want to see that shot. I knew it was going to be on every NCAA tournament game. It’s something that you worked your entire life for, just taken away from you in an instant like that.”
“That team was good,” Hansen said. “I had blocked off my calendar to the Final Four in the working world. For them to lose on that crazy shot on St. Patrick’s Day, it was like, ‘No way.’ Definitely the ‘06 loss was disheartening.”
Perhaps most unfortunate of all, the loss might have cost that team filled with native Iowans like Horner, Haluska and Greg Brunner a legacy. A few more wins — even with a different type of heartbreak — might have propelled a team alongside the school’s great teams. Instead it’s overshadowed.
“There seemed like there was always controversy so our legacy was always kind of in the dark a little bit,” Horner said. “I think the NCAA tournament was the icing on the cake for that. It was tough for the guys on the team. We fought through the adversity, and I just hope the fans appreciate it.”