AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The Iowa Hawkeyes needed a little St. Patrick’s Day luck on Friday. Instead, they were dealt a season-ending three-point basket with time expiring in first round action of the 2006 NCAA Tournament in The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The loss – a 64-63 stunner to No. 14 seed Northwestern State – abruptly closed the book on the careers of a senior class that had only five days earlier rocked the Big Ten Conference by claiming the league’s post-season tournament title, the league’s automatic entry to “The Dance,” and a three seed in the Atlanta Region.
The Hawkeyes used a 7-0 run in the opening minutes of the second half to charge to a 35-28 lead. The lead reached 10 at 40-30 with a putback by Greg Brunner. It grew to 17 at 54-37 with 8:29 to play when Erek Hansen dropped a pair of free throws.
Northwestern State then turned to Clifton Lee to make it a game…an NCAA-Tournament-bracket-buster game.
Keyed by 13 points from Lee, Northwestern outscored Iowa 17-3 to move within three of the Hawkeyes at 57-54 with 4:28 to play.
Jeff Horner responded on Iowa’s next possession, however, sinking a short jumper with two seconds left on the shot clock – Iowa 59, Northwestern State 54 – and then stole the inbounds pass and called a quick timeout.
Brunner then pushed the margin to 60-54 with a free throw but, undeterred, NSU’s Lee sank another three-pointer at the 2:46 mark.
Ninety seconds later, Lee sank another three-pointer to cut Iowa’s margin in half, 60-57. NSU’s Jermaine Spencer pulled the Demons to within one, 60-59, when he dropped a lay-up with 1:05 to play.
Mike Henderson gave Iowa a little breathing room when he sank a pair of free throws. Those, however, were countered by two by the Demons’ Luke Rogers with 40 seconds to play.
Brunner gave Iowa its final lead at 63-61 with 16 ticks left on the clock when he sank one of two free throws.
Then, the dagger: Northwestern State’s Jermaine Wallace knocked down a falling-away three-pointer to grab the victory after a teammate tracked down a long rebound of the Demons’ first attempt at victory.
“I thought we had a couple of good leads in each half and we didn’t finish either. It came down to our inability to keep them off the offensive glass and turnovers. That really hurt us,” said UI Head Coach Steve Alford.
“It’s also hard to overcome 19 more opportunities to score when you’re playing a very good team,” Iowa’s head coach added.
As has been the case all season, Alford could point to a number of Hawkeyes who came up big in a big-time game against an opponent that proved itself more than worthy of pre-game conversation that had tabbed Northwestern State as capable of pulling off an upset.
Start with Brunner. Held scoreless in the first 20 minutes, the senior forward exploded for 15 points in the final stanza, a total that included 11 straight for Iowa capped by a lay-up on the front end of a fast break that gave the Hawkeyes a 49-35 lead.
Horner? Iowa’s floor general keyed Iowa’s fast start and then turned into distributor. He collected four assists and five steals to go along with 11 points.
Thomas? Iowa’s “Mr. Energy” contributed seven points, five rebounds and two blocked shots in 24 minutes of action. His point total included five free throws made in six attempts – not bad numbers for a guy who made just a hair more than 50 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe during the regular season.
Haluska? With 20 points, he was Iowa’s leading scorer for the first time since hitting for 18 against Michigan on Feb. 4. The guard from Carroll was particularly effective from behind the arc where he was good on five of eight attempts.
“True to form, Bru bounced back from his first half to a much more productive, much more assertive second half,” Alford said of Brunner.
Iowa’s defense was stingy again. It held Northwestern State to just 37 percent from the field. But the Hawkeyes were victimized by 14 offensive rebounds by the Demons, who turned that edge into a 61-42 NSU advantage in field goal attempts.
Iowa suffered through offensive dryspells in both halves. But the game was not lost in first 20 minutes because of a lack of offense, according to Horner.
“No. We had what, a 16-point lead (in the second half). We just couldn’t get it done in the second half. Games like this just happen. It’s just hard to end your career this way,” said Iowa’s four-year starter.
“This loss doesn’t go on one person,” he added shortly after a member of the media asked Brunner about his missed free throw in the final seconds
“We won this year as a team and we lost this game as a team,” he said.
Iowa opened the game white hot, hitting seven of its first eight field goals and racing to an 18-4 lead when Henderson sank a pair of free throws with 13:12 left play. The Hawkeyes’ strong start was fueled by Horner, who scored all seven of his first half points in the game’s opening minutes.
However, the Hawkeyes then turned ice cold and watched as Northwestern State went on a 14-0 run during a 10-minute stretch when Iowa couldn’t buy a basket.
Alford’s squad finally got back on the board when Doug Thomas sank a pair of free throws at the three-minute mark to break an 18-all tie. Haluska then went to work, giving Iowa a 23-21 lead on a three-pointer, stretching it to 25-22 on a pair of free throw, before pushing it to 28-22 on a lay-in and a free throw in the final two minutes of play.
The teams broke for intermission with Iowa holding a slim 28-24 lead, a tally that mirrored the parity in the numbers on the stat sheet: Iowa shot 39 percent from the field in the first stanza, making nine of 23 attempts. NSU shot at a 28 percent clip, dropping eight of 28 tries after having started the game with just three buckets in their first 17 attempts.
It turned out the Demons’ last shot was the only one that mattered, however.
“It was the same feeling as the game last year against Wisconsin….’this can’t happen again,'” said Brunner of the final play.
The Hawkeyes end the 2005-06 season as Big Ten Tournament champions and winners of 25 games, the second most in a season in school history. Only Iowa’s 1986-87 team – which won 30 game en route to the championship game of the NCAA West Regional — won more games than this year’s squad – a group that also won all 17 contests played in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Our seniors have been the absolute perfect leaders on and off the court, so, as you might guess, it is very, very hard to say good-bye right now. I ache for the seniors that their last game had to be like this,” Alford said.
“Hats off to a very good Northwestern State team but, again, it’s hard to say good-bye to our seniors after what they’ve provided this program. They’re special. Each and every one of them.”