CHICAGO — Taken for dead-in-the-water and NIT-bound two weeks ago, Coach Steve Alford’s nose-to-the-grindstone Iowa squad took the defending Big Ten Conference tournament champion Wisconsin Badgers to the final five-tenths of a second Saturday afternoon in Chicago’s United Center before losing 59-56 on a desperation three-point basket by Alando Tucker.
So, instead of looking to make it four wins in four days for the second time in league tournament history Sunday afternoon in the Windy City, the Hawkeyes will huddle in Iowa City to watch what college basketball fans – and a whole bunch of student-athletes and coaches – live for come March: The NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Tipoff of that important piece of television programming is set for 5 p.m. Iowa time on CBS.
Make no mistake: Include the Iowa Hawkeyes among the interested parties.
Alford’s troops shouldn’t be wondering if they’re in – they’ve already earned that opportunity – 21 wins, victories in five of their last six games, a total that includes a win over a Top 10 team. And, for the record, Iowa’s last regular season loss came against a nationally ranked Wisconsin team.
No, the Hawkeyes should be watching to see who they play, when they play and where they play – not if the they get a chance to play.
Iowa earned that opportunity Saturday afternoon in the United Center by nearly avenging a 72-69 loss to the Badgers in Madison back on Feb. 9. That night, the Hawkeyes let a second-half lead slip through their fingers in arguably one of the most difficult venues for a visiting team in the Big Ten. They were also whistled for 27 fouls – a total that gave the Badgers 35 attempts from the charity stripe.
Everyone in the United Center thought Iowa had sent the game into overtime with a gutsy call by Alford – who had drawn up a play that would give the Hawkeyes a win. With 27.6 seconds left in the day’s second semifinal — the winner would play No. 1 ranked Illinois — Iowa’s sixth-year head coach had Horner kill clock before driving along the sideline to his right to the baseline where he fired a pass to Haluska who had spotted up in the left corner.
Haluska’s game-winning three-pointer rattled in and out, but was rebounded by Brunner, who tied the game at 56-all with an uncontested lay-in.
After a pair of Iowa timeouts, Wisconsin got its inbounds pass into the game’s leading scorer, Tucker, who drove up the sideline as he was hassled by Haluska before launching the game-winning bucket with less than a half of a second left on the game clock.
Iowa was led in scoring Brunner, who scored 18 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds and was credited with two blocks. Horner added 12, Haluska 10, and Erek Hansen nine. Mike Henderson had another strong game, collecting seven points and four rebounds.
The Hawkeyes rode the hot-hand of Henderson to recover from a 10-point deficit – 43-33 and the largest of the game – midway through the final half. On successive possessions, Henderson scored on a short jumper, drove for two and sank the free throw that followed, and dropped in another lay-up.
His personal 7-0 run was extended to 9-0 when Brunner sank a pair of free throws that pulled Iowa to within at 43-42 with 10:21 to play.
UW’s Morley and the Hawkeyes’ Horner traded three-pointers and the Badgers’ Tucker and Iowa’s Hansen traded pairs of free throws to push the score to 48-47. Tucker gave the Badgers a 50-47 lead with a “mini-hook” with about six minutes to play.
After each team played stout defense and forced their opponent to a shot clock violation, Haluska found Horner open underneath for an easy lay-in that cut the Badger lead to 50-49. The teams traded free throws to set up the action in the final seconds.
Taken as a whole, one would be hard-pressed to find a negative on the Hawkeye ledger. They went toe-to-toe for 40 minutes with a nationally-ranked team that was defending the title it claimed a year ago in Indianapolis.
“It was a really hard-fought, Big Ten game in a great tournament. I thought both teams played hard and gave it everything they had. If you look at the stats, it is a pretty even basketball game,” said Alford afterward.
“It was our third game in three days. We have a very young and inexperienced bench, so we had to go with the veterans, especially in a tight game, to try to get to that title game,” he added. “Our guys stepped up and did a lot of really good things. It was one of those games that you hate to see somebody lose. It hurts losing on a fade-away, bank-shot three at the buzzer.”
Iowa trailed 27-26 at halftime after Wisconsin’s Cameron Taylor made a three-pointer in the final seconds. The first stanza included four ties, scoring droughts by both teams and brilliant play by Hansen.
The Hawkeyes’ big man in the middle scored five points in the first 20 minutes. His turnaround jumper in the lane with 4:32 pulled Iowa to within one at 22-21. Hansen then forced a turnover under the Iowa basket, ran the length of the court and was fouled attempting a slam.
Hansen made the first to pull the Hawkeyes even, then completed a 7-0 run by Iowa with a jumper in the lane on the UI’s next possession. That bucket gave the Hawkeyes a 24-22 lead.
Hansen’s first half line also included two rebounds, two blocks and a steal in a very productive 12 minutes of action.
Brunner also had eight first half points and four rebounds for the Hawkeyes. Haluska chipped eight, six of which coming on a pair of three-pointers in the game’s opening minutes. Horner had five points.
Iowa outshot, outrébounded and, generally outplayed the Badgers in the first 20 minutes. Wisconsin did, however, have a 13-0 edge in points from its bench. The Badgers also converted Iowa’s eight turnovers into 13 points.
Unlike the two team’s first meeting of the season, the action of the first half included only 10 fouls and only four against the Hawkeyes.
Are the Hawkeyes in the Dance? “We hope so. We don’t have any control over it. We came out and fought hard. Hopefully, us being so close in this game plays a part in it,” Horner said.
“Getting beat on a buzzer beater like that can play in to it. Our goal is to win a Big Ten Championship. Unfortunately, we fell a little bit short.”