Iowa enters NCAA Tournament territory with Senior Day win

Hawkeyes believe they've done enough to 'deserve to be in,' still focused on winning as many as they can in Big Ten Tournament

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IOWA CITY — The storylines from Sunday’s Senior Day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena were plentiful.

The Iowa men’s basketball team got its fourth straight win, 90-79, against Penn State, and within that 40 minutes of basketball were things like Peter Jok scoring 13 points in less than three minutes of the start of the second half and Dale Jones getting to start, then making the first shot. There was Nicholas Baer going for 20 points and 10 rebounds and Tyler Cook adding 11 points and 10 rebounds of his own.

The most important thing, though? Those once-longshot NCAA Tournament hopes now don’t seem so long, thanks to those four regular-season-ending victories.

The evening of Feb. 18, after a 70-66 loss to Illinois at home, it seemed tenuous to even consider an NIT berth for these Hawkeyes. A little more than two weeks later, Coach Fran McCaffery didn’t hesitate when he was asked if his team had done enough.

“I do,” McCaffery said. “I think we deserve to be in.”

Granted, coaches of bubble teams are always going to say that when asked. But that it’s even an option for McCaffery is a testament to what he and his players have been saying about themselves all season long: they believe they belong.

During just the Big Ten season, Iowa suffered two three-game losing streaks. The Hawkeyes answered both with three or more wins in a row. Iowa was 3-5 and 6-8 in conference play after both those streaks, and finishes 10-8, locking up the No. 7 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament.

Sunday’s win was the exclamation point on the best run of games the Hawkeyes have put together — undoubtedly in the Big Ten season, and probably overall this year. After the hot-shooting games against Indiana and then-No. 24 Maryland, then the final-seconds win at No. 21 Wisconsin, Iowa hasn’t let up.

Jok led with 21 points on 4-of-5 shooting from 3, followed by the aforementioned Baer and Cook contributions. Then there was Cordell Pemsl, who had 14 points and six rebounds, and the game-winning shooter from the Wisconsin game, Jordan Bohannon, who had 11 points and five assists.

Like the adversity of losing streaks, the Hawkeyes lost Jok to foul trouble in the second half, and responded by taking an 11-point lead into the break. It was just one more example of McCaffery’s point about this team’s resiliency.

“Every time there was adversity, we met that challenge,” McCaffery said. “It’s a tremendous feeling. I know how hard I’ve worked. But my staff has really worked. These kids have really put the time in. You would expect that, I suppose.

“To a man, they come early. They watch film. They stay positive. We stay positive with them. We just kept teaching. They just kept getting better.”

Responding to adversity is almost a cliché, but the Iowa coaches and players believe what a team does or individuals do when presented with a challenge speaks to their character.

Even if every team that has lost several in a row takes the “nobody believes in us,” mentality as a motivator, there still has to come with that an understanding of what needs to be done.

McCaffery and his players knew what needed to be done. They knew when Jok went out with two fouls in the first half Sunday, and they knew after that loss to Illinois a couple weeks ago.

“I think it’s the road games we were able to win. We understood after that Illinois loss that we still had two great opportunities at Maryland and at Wisconsin, and if we were able to get those wins it would help our resume,” Baer said. “I think what was more important was not giving up. Physical toughness is, ‘Never say die.’ Mental toughness is never even thinking it. We were able to stay focused.”

Iowa’s NCAA Tournament resume: five wins against teams in the top 50 in RPI (Iowa State, Michigan, Purdue, Maryland and Wisconsin), nine wins against teams in the top 100 in RPI, four wins against ranked opponents, two wins against ranked opponents on the road and an RPI of 74, which could go up again after Sunday’s win. The Hawkeyes technically finished in a tie for sixth in the Big Ten, but lost the tiebreaker to Michigan State for that No. 6 seed in Washington, D.C.

Even if McCaffery and Co. believe they belong and have done enough, they did stop at running down that list of things that would go on a resume. The Hawkeyes have believed they were talented enough since Day 1, but as Pemsl put it, “we’ve just been playing inconsistently. We finally got that rhythm and that swagger as a team,” to make it realistic.

Iowa’s resume is looking stronger, yes. But with four more wins — a tall ask, to be certain — no resume is necessary. To his swagger point, Pemsl added, “we tell ourselves, we might as well just go win the Big Ten Tournament; then they’ve got to put us in.”

Jok played his last game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena — barring an NIT berth and home game for that — and echoed his teammates and coach afterward. Even he put his storyline to the back burner from Sunday.

It’s March, and this run at the most important time is what got top billing.

“We bought in. We’re really connected right now at both ends. Everybody is stepping up. That’s the reason we’re rolling right now,” Jok said. “We’ve just got to keep winning, really. Whatever happens, happens. I really like the way we’re playing right now.

“There’s no better time to click than in March. I think we’re clicking at the right time. We had a lot of downs as the season went on, but there’s no better feeling than clicking at the right time.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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