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The top moment of Iowa's 2011-12 season was its 84-75 National Invitation Tournament win against Dayton on March 13. Not only did the game represent the Hawkeyes' first postseason game in six years or their first postseason win in nine years, it showed the resurrection of a program on life support two years earlier.
In less than 48 hours, 13,190 people scooped up tickets to watch an Iowa home basketball game. Two years ago Iowa barely averaged 5,000 in actual attendance. Around 10,000 tickets were sold to non-season ticket holders, and the atmosphere was electric.
"When you think about it, we didn't know we were going to have a game until Sunday night, and 13,000 people show up in less than 48 hours," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "That's pretty good. That says everything you need to know about Hawk fans."
The pace was fast throughout the first half and Iowa held a 44-41 halftime advantage. Iowa led by two with 15:31 left in the game before the Hawkeyes went on an 18-5 run to take control. The Flyers never got closer than 10 points until hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The 18-5 run was crucial, in part because everybody got involved. Aaron White drilled a 3-pointer, which was assisted by Matt Gatens. Devyn Marble followed with a layup, which was assisted by Zach McCabe. Melsahn Basabe then scored nine consecutive Hawkeye points with assists from Gatens, Bryce Cartwright and Josh Oglesby.
"I think everything went well for us," Cartwright said. "We were playing fluid and everybody was out running, and we reaped the rewards of it on top of a long-time playoff game from Carver. It's all built-up energy waiting to get loose."
It's difficult to choose just one player. White had game highs in points (25) and rebounds (11). McCabe hit all nine shots and scored 20 points. Cartwright had 11 assists and only two turnovers in 35 minutes. Basabe brought energy off the bench, scoring 15 points and grabbing five rebounds in 14 minutes. Gatens didn't have his best shooting night, but he attracted the defense, which opened up his teammates.
"I was trying to get everybody involved," Cartwright said. "Everybody in the crowd was happy. Everybody scored, everybody was happy and we all fed off of it. I think it was conducive to us winning."
White gets the nod, but by a slim margin.
The win changes the mood about the program entering the offseason. Despite a loss at Oregon in the following game, Iowa secured a winning season with the Dayton victory. The program was exposed to more fans locally, and the game aired on ESPN to a national audience.
"I thought right when I came out on to the floor, which is about three minutes before tip, that you could feel you're like sitting in the building and the energy level, and I could see despite the fact that it was an up-and-down game, and it was a physical game, our guys just were not getting tired," McCaffery said. "And that's really a direct result of the crowd energy."
"Our bigs were really a factor tonight, but we shared the ball," McCaffery said. "We drove the ball, we were able to play in the half-court, we were play full-court. That's when it's fun."
"We want to keep playing, keep winning together. It's a lot of fun," Gatens said. "It's big, not only to make the NIT, but to get a win in there against a team with a good tradition. Dayton's always in the postseason."
"My career's been filled with ups and downs, but this is definitely the highest point," Iowa senior Andrew Brommer said.
Iowa rallied from a seven-point, second-half deficit to clip longtime rival Illinois 64-61 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa won its first league tourney game in six years, and ended a series-worst, seven-game losing streak to the Illini. Gatens scored 20 points to pace the Hawkeyes, which bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament the following day against top-seeded Michigan State.