INDIANAPOLIS — And now the amazing journey known as “Iowa Basketball 2005-06” includes a championship.
Steve Alford’s Hawkeyes, the 2006 Big Ten Conference Tournament’s No. 2 seed – ran off a 12-0 run on No. 1 seed Ohio State that was capped by a short runner by senior guard Jeff Horner late in Sunday’s championship game of the league tournament en route to a 67-60 victory over the Buckeyes.
Iowa’s winning margin was its largest margin of the game. And, for the second time in two days, Iowa came from behind at halftime to claim victory.
The win – the Hawkeyes’ 25th of the season – gave Iowa its second conference crown under Alford – Iowa won four straight games in Chicago in 2001 – and the Hawkeyes the Big Ten’s automatic berth in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
And, as one might expect, the victory came on the shoulders of the seniors. Horner, the recipient of the tournament’s Most Outstanding player award, scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half and had 14 assists. Greg Brunner added 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Erek Hansen scored 10 and teamed with Doug Thomas to hold Terrance Dials – the Big Ten’s most valuable player – to just 10 points and nine rebounds.
“Our seniors have been outstanding all year and they stepped up big again today,” Alford said afterward. “They’ve played with tremendous pride and provided tremendous leadership. I’m very, very proud of them and happy for them.”
Iowa tied the game at 57-all when Hansen tipped in a Brunner miss with 4:58 left to play. The Hawkeyes then outscored Ohio State 10-3 to claim the championship.
As always, defense was key. Iowa held Ohio State to just 30 percent shooting in the second half. And, as always, support came from everywhere and, in this case, the unlikely hero was sophomore Alex Thompson, whose nifty pass to Horner resulted in a lay-up and a 59-57 lead for Iowa.
Then, on Iowa’s next possession, the forward from Ames dropped a three-point basket to put the Hawkeyes firmly in charge. Thompson’s line on the scorecard was brilliant: Seven minutes played, perfect on his only field goal attempt (the three-pointer), one rebound and two assists.
The Hawkeyes’ heroics rendered irrelevant a 19-point performance by Ohio State sophomore guard Jamar Butler.
“This one ranks high. It’s special. We’ve come so far as a team and as a group. I couldn’t be happier,” Alford said.
The Hawkeyes used baskets from Hansen, Haluska and Tony Freeman to cut a nine-point Buckeye lead – their largest of the first half – to three at 34-31 with just under four minutes to play. OSU responded with a three-pointer from Ron Lewis – one of just four made three-point tries by the Buckeyes in 16 attempts.
Horner’s first basket of the half came as the shot clock buzzer sounded and with just three seconds left to play. That short jumper cut Ohio State’s lead to 37-34. Horner was 0-for-5 from behind the arc in the first half, but did continue to run Iowa’s offense with the skill of a senior who has been a starter for four years as evidenced by seven assists.
Iowa did fail to take advantage of foul trouble that put OSU’s Dials on the bench for the last 12:17 of the first half with the Buckeyes hanging on to a 14-12 lead. Dials’ replacement, Matt Sylvester, also picked up two fouls early and played only seven minutes of the first stanza.
Brunner and Haluska each had 10 points at intermission. Freeman had five for Iowa. The Hawkeyes also had a 20-14 rebounding advantage at the break.
Ohio State and Sullinger, however, were blistering the nets. The Buckeyes shot 50 percent for the half and their springy senior forward was perfect on four field goal attempts.
Iowa and Ohio State had met once before in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. That game – also played in Conseco Fieldhouse – was won by Ohio State by an 81-64 score in 2001. The Hawkeyes entered that game spent, having defeated Purdue, Wisconsin and Indiana as the tourney’s No. 9 seed.
Iowa and Ohio State are both destined to receive an invitation to this year’s NCAA Tournament. It will be the 23rd invitation in school history for the Hawkeyes and the third under Alford. The real question for both teams is how their performance over the last three days has impacted where they will be seeded in the 65-team field.