INDIANAPOLIS — A pair of tired teams that know how to play defense took to the playing floor inside Conseco Fieldhouse early Saturday afternoon in the first of two semifinals of the 2006 Big Ten Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament. Steve Alford’s Iowa Hawkeyes walked off two hours later with a 53-48 victory over Michigan State to earn the opportunity to win the league’s automatic invitation to the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
The statistics say this game was ugly. Iowa shot just 37 percent percent from the field and committed 14 turnovers. Michigan State was even uglier, however, sinking only 28 percent of its field goal attempts and giving the ball away 18 times in its third game in three days in Indianapolis.
The contest was a thing of beauty for Alford, however. He saw grit. He saw determination. He saw senior forward Greg Brunner taking a pair of charges in the second half when Iowa slowly but surely grabbed hold of the win.
“We were awesome defensively for all but the first five minutes of the game against a team that can hurt you in so many ways,” said Alford.
“We took care of the ball and we made free throws,” Iowa’s seven-year head coach added. “When you struggle offensively like we did, you can’t let it effect you on the other end of the floor and it didn’t. We played great, great defense.”
The Hawkeyes won this game at the charity stripe. Iowa sank 15 free throws in the final five minutes of play and 18 of 21 in the final 20 minutes. Four of them came off the right hand of Adam Haluska, who made just one field goal in eight tries but was 7-for-8 from the line.
Jeff Horner paced Iowa’s scoring attack with 14 points. Brunner chipped in 12 and Mike Henderson 11. Haluska and Brunner grabbed a team-high five rebounds; Erek Hansen and Horner had four apiece.
“I thought Mikey (Henderson) was tremendous. He played all 20 minutes (in the second half), came up with some big rebounds, guarded well and made some big shots with the clock winding down,” Alford said of the junior guard from Waterloo.
The Spartans were paced by Maurice Ager who scored a game-high 21 points. Paul Davis added 13 and a game-high 10 rebounds.
Iowa took its first lead of the game at 31-29 when Henderson dropped in a lay-up and sank a free throw. Horner stretched the lead to 34-30 when he made a three-pointer.
Michigan State jumped out of the gate to take a 8-0 lead on two Ager three’s and a bucket by Davis. The Spartans stretched their lead to 15-4 when Maurice Brown dropped a three-pointer. Iowa responded by outscoring MSU 11-0 over the next seven minutes to knot the game at 15s.
Iowa will play Ohio State, the Big Ten’s regular season champion, Sunday afternoon for the league’s post-season tournament title and its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. CBS will televise the game live beginning at 2:30 p.m. Iowa time.
Iowa defeated Ohio State in its only meeting during the regular season. That game was played in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a building in which Iowa didn’t lose a game in 2005-06.
The Hawkeyes will looking to win its second Big Ten Tournament title. Iowa won four games in four days to win the 2001 event staged in the United Center in Chicago.
Iowa won its first three games in the 2002 event in Conseco before falling to Ohio State by a 81-64 score in the championship game.
Iowa defeated Indiana twice during the regular season and Ohio State the one time the teams saw each other.
The Hawkeyes are playing their way up the ladder in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee. Iowa seems likely headed for a No. 3 seed in the annual post-season party regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s championship game.
“I’m very proud of this group. The led or were among the league leaders for much of the season and, now, they’ve put themselves in position to win a championship,” said Alford.