Commentary: Hawks hang tough


Iowa trotted out onto the Carver-Hawkeye Arena floor Sunday afternoon with its new putrid-looking jerseys and fewer players to wear them.

Nine scholarship players dressed for the Hawkeyes’ showdown with Michigan, with Jermain Davis and his bruised knee adding another bullet point to Iowa’s seemingly endless injury list.

But none of that mattered.

It didn’t matter that the end of the Hawkeyes’ bench is starting to fill up faster than the Ped Mall after the bars close. It didn’t matter that head coach Todd Lickliter was forced to play his players longer than he would’ve dreamed back in November. It didn’t matter that the Wolverines made 12 3-pointers.

Yes, the Hawkeyes secured their 14th win of the season in a 70-60 overtime thriller against Michigan Sunday, but more than that, Lickliter’s squad proved it wasn’t going to be an easy win for anyone, especially when playing at home.

“We’re a young team, but we really wanted to prove ourselves for sure,” said sophomore Jake Kelly, who had a career-high 23 points against the Wolverines.

I heard this all the time over the Hawkeyes’ dismal stretch that saw them lose 11 of 15 contests — this team was still going to compete, the injuries wouldn’t affect this squad’s approach, not having a true point guard wouldn’t hurt this team’s offensive efficiency.

The Hawkeyes said it all in the past few weeks, and, to be honest, I believed very little of it. How could a team lose three of its most productive players and still compete in one of the deepest conferences in the country?

Maybe it the was the pessimist in me, but I didn’t see it happening. And, for the most part, I was right. Sure, the Hawkeyes competed from time to time — the home games against Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin come to mind — but more often than not, they faltered against top competition.

Early on against Michigan, it seemed as if we were going to witness another competitive contest with the Hawkeyes losing the game down the stretch because of fatigue — even Kelly said, “I thought we were going to [be] too tired there.” On the surface, it looked as if these were the same old Hawkeyes, just in different, less-flattering jerseys.

But, for whatever reason, Sunday was different for Lickliter’s young squad.

“We just wanted to win,” said junior Devan Bawinkel, who added 12 points and nine rebounds.

And Iowa did it by playing classic Lickliter basketball — a little bit like what Kelly called the “Iowa Way” earlier this season. The Hawkeyes defended — boy, did they defend, holding the Wolverines to 24 percent shooting in the second half and overtime. They ran their motion offense and got good looks from deep. They hustled for loose balls and blocked shots in the lane.

This was a team with seemingly nothing left to play for that battled like it still had a shot at securing an NCAA Tournament bid.

“I’m proud of them, but I expect it,” Lickliter said. “Why would you not? You only have so many opportunities, so many challenges, you’re sure wouldn’t want to miss out on any of them. … Nobody’s ever said it’s going to be smooth sailing; you have to do it when things look kind of bleak.
“That’s what should happen.”

And that’s what did happen in Carver-Hawkeye Arena Sunday afternoon.

It’s hard to say what this means in the grand scheme of things. Maybe the Hawkeyes will go up to East Lansing on Feb. 25 and give Michigan State a game, or maybe they’ll get blown out by 20.

All I know is that with everything this team has been through — the injuries, the suspensions, and even Kelly’s mother passing away last summer — it deserves a few more wins down the stretch.

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