IOWA CITY, Iowa — This time last year, Iowa was 2-5 in conference play.
What a difference a year makes.
The Hawkeyes badgered No. 16 Ohio State into submission, 67-62, before a sell-out crowd of 15,500 inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday night, and grabbed a share of a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten Conference.
“It was a huge win, and we’ve got to keep it going,” senior forward Greg Brunner said. “It’s a good feeling, but we’ve got to keep it and run with the momentum.”
The win was Iowa’s fifth against a ranked opponent and its 13th-straight at home this season. The Hawkeyes (16-5, 5-2 Big Ten) haven’t lost inside Carver-Hawkeye since Feb. 19, 2005, when they played host to No. 1 Illinois.
“It’s big time,” coach Steve Alford said of the home-crowd advantage. “Our crowd keeps getting better and better, and obviously winning helps.”
Iowa’s off to its best start in the conference race in five years, when it started 6-2 in 2001. Ohio State (14-3, 4-3) is one game back, behind Indiana, which will play winless Minnesota on Sunday and likely move into a five-way tie for first place with Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.
“It’s a good stretch,” Alford said. “The guys have worked through a lot of adversity and everything they’re achieving they deserve.”
The Hawkeyes, at almost the midpoint of the conference season, are exactly where they want to be, according to junior guard Adam Haluska, who scored a team-high 18 points.
“It’s something we aspired to and it’s a situation we wanted to be in,” he said. “We’re excited and we’re going to keep working harder.”
Defense set the tone for the Hawkeyes, who held their 13th opponent of the year under 40 percent from the field. The Buckeyes shot 20 of 57 from the field (35.1 percent), and couldn’t buy an offensive rebound, finishing with four for the game. Iowa outrebounded OSU, 43-30.
“They did a great job,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I wouldn’t take back some of the looks we had. I thought we executed what we wanted to do. They did a great job of blocking us down.”
The Hawkeyes went on a 16-8 run, capped off by an acrobatic dunk by senior Doug Thomas, which spanned the middle part of the first half and got Iowa out to a nine-point lead, its largest of the game, with 8:54 left in the half.
But a 5-minute, 16-second drought then ensued for Iowa, which went 11 straight possessions without a point. Ohio State took advantage of the poor Hawkeye shooting and scored nine-straight to tie the game at 32 on a free throw by Ron Lewis with 3:38 on the clock.
Brunner got Iowa back on track in the final 2 minutes, 39 seconds, with two layups and two free throws that yielded a 40-36 halftime advantage for the Hawkeyes.
The forward had 10 points in the first half, and finished the game with 17 on 6-of-15 shooting while grabbing nine boards.
For the game, Iowa scored 25 of 59 from the field (42.4 percent), just 3 of 13 from three-point range, and 14 of 17 at the line.
“I think we’re starting to make more shots and be more confident,” Brunner said. “I don’t know why we’ve had (offensive) problems, but I think we’re starting to come around a little bit and hopefully we can keep it going.”
As long as the Hawkeyes hold their opponents without a basket for the last 6 minutes, 34 seconds of a game, like they did against OSU, they won’t need major offensive production.
J.J. Sullinger scored the Buckeyes’ only point, a free throw with 33 seconds left in the game, in a drought that forced his team into a 8-of-29 (27.6 percent) second-half showing.
Lewis led the Buckeyes with a game-high 19 points, hitting four three-pointers. Terence Dials, the team leader with a 14.5 ppg average, scored 16 and grabbed eight rebounds.
Ohio State had opportunities to get back into the game and put together a string of three-pointers by Lewis that gave it a 57-53 lead with 9:21 to play.
Alex Thompson, a sophomore forward, nailed a three-pointer with 7:54 on the clock to tie the game at 58, which helped turn the tide against the Buckeyes, who scored just four more points.
Thomas, at 6-feet, 8-inches, defended the 6-foot-9 Dials most of the night.
“They disrupted us a little bit,” Dials said. “(Thomas is) full of energy, and he worked hard at denying me the ball. We had counters for that but we didn’t get to them.”
Thomas, who scored 10 points himself, said inside defense was a key.
“You’re going to have to worry about inside from here on out,” he said. “Coach just kept saying, `Keep D-ing up.'”
Iowa’s luck at the charity stripe kept intact the balance of the way. The Hawkeyes nailed 7 of 8 from the line in the final 6 minutes.
“What a great win,” Alford said. “It doesn’t make a season, but it sure puts a good light on it.”
HAWKEYE NOTES: Freshman guard Tony Freeman sat out against Ohio State with a strained calf muscle. Senior Justin Wieck subbed for Freeman in the lineup and finished with one point and one rebound in six minutes.
“Justin hasn’t played much all year and in a large, large game comes in and did a lot of nice things,” said Alford.
… Iowa honored the 1955 and 1956 Final Four teams at halftime Saturday, including four members of the “Fabulous Five” starting lineup.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com