Nov. 20, 2012
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CANCUN, Mexico — It was an evening of firsts for the University of Iowa men’s basketball team.
First trip to the Cancun Challenge, first meeting against Western Kentucky, and first 5-0 start in four seasons.
The Hawkeyes defeated Western Kentucky, 63-55, on Tuesday to reach the final of the Cancun Challenge, where they will face Wichita State less than 24 hours after opening tip at the Moon Palace Resort.
“We knew what we had to do to get home,” UI head coach Fran McCaffery said. “We never let (Western Kentucky) get closer than six (points), we kept holding them at bay and I’m very proud with how we did that.”
Freshman point guard Mike Gesell had a lot to do with Iowa leading from start to finish against the Hilltoppers, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Gesell made 7-of-10 field goals (3-of-5 from 3-point range) for a game-high, season-high, and obviously a career-high, 19 points.
“We can still improve on some things, but I think we did a great job of attacking them,” Gesell said. “They attacked us and we couldn’t just lay back and let them pressure us; we had to attack right back at them and I think we did a good job of that and we were able to come out on top.”
While Gesell shined from the perimeter, junior teammate Melsahn Basabe was a bright spot down low. Basabe reached double figures in points with a season-high 11, and he added five rebounds and four blocked shots.
“He had energy, he battled, he played smart, he played tough,” McCaffery said. “I’m really happy for Melsahn.”
“Any time you can get an effort like that coming off the bench, it really sets the tone for your team,” Gesell said. “He made some big plays, he erased some easy layups for them and those are the plays you need to make to win close games.”
The Hawkeyes had a third player — Roy Devyn Marble — score in double figures with 10 points. He handed out four assists and made all four of his free throw attempts.
Iowa shot 46.8 percent from the field (22-of-47) and limited Western Kentucky to 33.3-percent shooting (20-of-60). The Hawkeyes also won the rebounding battle, 38-32. A made jump shot by Gesell with 9:46 remaining put Iowa ahead 47-35 — its largest lead of the game.
“I was thrilled with our depth,” said McCaffery, who watched his team earn a 19-7 advantage in bench points.
If there is one area the Hawkeyes need to improve Wednesday is taking care of the ball; they turned the ball over 18 times in the semifinals.
Iowa led by as many as 11 points in the first half and was up 30-22 at halftime behind 10 points by Gessel (three 3-pointers) and nine from Zach McCabe. Basabe pulled down five rebounds.
The Hawkeyes played outstanding defense and rebounded well during the first 20 minutes, but 10 turnovers allowed the Hilltoppers to hang close at the break. While Iowa made 10-of-23 field goals, Western Kentucky was limited to 8-of-28.
It will be a quick turnaround from the Hawkeyes, who take on Wichita State on Wednesday, Nov. 21, at 8:30 p.m. (CT). The Shockers defeated DePaul, 75-62, in the other semifinal.
Iowa and Wichita State have split their previous eight meetings, with the Shockers winning the last two, including a 74-57 decision in the CBE Classic in 2009.
“They are a very physical team,” McCaffery said. “They fouled so much at the end of the game; I have seen very few teams foul that much. That’s what we have to get our guys ready for.”
“They’re a good team,” Gesell said. “They’re a very physical team, but I think we can match up to that.”