IOWA CITY — What this needed to be for the Iowa men’s basketball team was its most-energized game of the season. And its best game.
Check, and almost/maybe/kinda/probably check in the Hawkeyes’ 96-93 loss to No. 4 Michigan State Tuesday night in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. A slog of a season got some much-needed fireworks and cotton candy, even with the disappointing result.
“Wow!” was the first word out of Tom Izzo’s mouth after the Michigan State coach sat down for his postgame press conference.
That said plenty. This was a “Wow!” game, one in which the disappointment of losing for the Hawkeyes was the good kind instead of the we-got-whomped variety. This was one in which you hate the way it ended, but you love the way you got to the end.
Iowa had so many players who came to win. Power forward Tyler Cook was so often, well, powerful in racking up 26 points. He treated the challenge of playing against Michigan State’s premier front line players as the golden opportunity it was.
“I absolutely love Cook,” Izzo said. But his own front line players didn’t.
In the second half, Iowa guard Isaiah Moss was “woke,” as they say, and did a lot to get Carver-Hawkeye “lit,” as they say. He went from a nondescript first half to being an explosive, playmaking, crowd-stirrer.
Jordan Bohannon, the Iowa point guard who has been sick since before his team’s embarrassing 82-58 loss at Penn State last Saturday? It was as if he sweated away his fluish bug with 17 points and six assists in 32 minutes, but he didn’t let the Spartans see him sweat.
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“I tried not to show too much fatigue,” Bohannon said, noting he was shivering the first time he came out of the game and watched the action, but lived on adrenaline when he was on the court.
“He’s one tough dude,” said Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery.
It took toughness and maybe a little of the magical and mystical for an Iowa team that brought a 3-9 Big Ten record to this game. Especially against a club with two probable 2018 NBA lottery picks in its front line.
Michigan State sported 6-foot-11 freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. He is 18 years old, makes 3-pointers, is quick, has a 7-foot-4 wingspan, and came to Carver with more blocked shots per Big Ten game (4.2) than eight of the conference’s teams, Iowa included.
And there was 6-7 forward Miles Bridges, who passed up NBA lottery-land last year to play his sophomore season at MSU. He’s an inside-outside guy who scores almost 18 points per game. You can’t foul him because he’s a 90 percent free-thrower.
Yet, after making all seven of his previous tries this night, he missed a pair with 3.6 seconds left and his team up by three. The door was open, but Nicholas Baer’s half-court heave bounced off the rim.
“Sometimes it just feels like it’s going to be close and it’s not going to go in,” Cook said.
Still, the shot and Iowa’s play over 40 minutes were genuinely great tries. Michigan State came in leading the nation in field goal defense with 35.4 percent. Iowa made 52.2 percent of its shots.
“That team is as good an offensive team as we’ve played,” Izzo said, later adding “I don’t think either team played any defense, to be honest with you. Speaking for myself.”
Iowa’s formula for competing here appeared to be play hard, get the Spartans in foul trouble, and play even harder. It almost worked.
Getting two fouls on Jackson and starting forward Nick Ward in the game’s first 10 minutes were big. Izzo pulled both for the remainder of the first half, after the two had done a lot of damage.
Jackson dunked twice before the game was 40 seconds old. Ward had a pair of dunks and 10 points when he left at the 10:11 mark of the half. Jackson played just 19 minutes, Ward 12. The duo combined for 28 points. Imagine if they’d played their normal minutes.
Bridges kept things from going too badly, pouring in 15 points in the half that ended with MSU up 48-42. The Spartans didn’t exactly limp through the second 10 minutes of the first half, but they couldn’t pull away. Which mattered considerably.
After MSU pushed to a 55-46 lead early in the second half. Moss started making great things happen offensively in transition. When Moss is aggressive, he is a Big Ten player. When Iowa is aggressive, it’s a Big Ten team.
Bohannon’s assist total was nothing different, but the fact Cook, Moss and Baer all had four told you the Hawkeyes moved the ball around so much better than they have much of this season.
Cook scored five times in a three-minute stretch in which Iowa wrested its first lead with 14:16 left. His passing was as smart and crisp as it's been all season.
Soph forward Cordell Pemsl took a turn taking command, then soph guard Maishe Dailey swished a pair of 3-pointers in 68 seconds. Iowa was up 78-71 when Izzo called time with 8:45 left. It was fang-and-claw from that point forward.
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Games in any sport can be won and lost on the thinnest of differences. MSU pulled ahead 90-89 with 2:13 left when backup forward Kenny Goins’ 3-pointer bounced and bounced on the rim before dropping in. It was Goins’ first triple in his last 10 games and third of the season.
“I didn’t appreciate that it bounced around a couple times,” Izzo said.
Hey, a crowd of 11,350 didn’t appreciate that it didn’t bounce off that rim and into a Hawkeye’s hands.
Izzo has a roster-full of talent, a 23-3 team that he says hasn’t reached its ceiling. And this was an atmosphere unlike any at Carver all season, with the Hawkeyes playing heads-up against an elite foe for the first time this year. Plus, it was MSU’s fifth game in 12 days, and second on the road in the last four.
But the Spartans made plays down the stretch in a game they could easily have lost. Elite foes do that. For a change, it was a game in which Iowa didn’t help a good team win as much as it forced an opponent to earn it.
Now, can Iowa go on the road (at Ohio State Saturday, at Michigan Feb. 14) and stop getting trampled?
“This just proves we can play with anyone,” Bohannon said. “I don’t care who’s in front of us.”
No, this didn’t prove that. Competing to the end in the next two games away from Carver would. But this definitely was a start, and it just plain fun to watch, too.
After answering questions about why his team hasn’t been set at maximum-destruction lately, Izzo said “I bet I could get a lot of coaches to trade right now, trade for my guys and have a 23-3 record.”
OK, there is that.