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Despite record, Iowa basketball stays tenacious

BY SCOTT MILLER | MARCH 11, 2009 7:17 AM

Penn State’s Talor Battle had 11 points in the last 2:41 to force overtime against Iowa on March 7. Everyone in Carver-Hawkeye Arena thought the game was over. The Hawkeyes had blown a nine-point lead down the stretch, and it’s nearly impossible to recover mentally from letting a lead like that slip away.

It’s why Kansas beat Memphis in last year’s national championship game, after Mario Chalmers completed a similar nine-point comeback to force overtime. And it’s why everyone figured Iowa would lose to Penn State in the extra period.

But everyone should’ve known better.

After all, this is a team that has fought through a slew of injuries — Cyrus Tate’s ankle, Jeff Peterson’s hamstring, Jermain Davis’ knee, Aaron Fuller’s bruised forearm — to earn a near-.500 record. This is a team that has played some of the Big Ten’s best — Ohio State, Minnesota, Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan State — to losses of eight points or fewer. And this is a team that has faced far greater adversity than an overtime game against the Nittany Lions.

So the Hawkeyes continued to battle during the Penn State game on March 7.

“We just figured, we’ve done it before,” freshman Matt Gatens said at the time. “We’ve beaten teams in overtime. Let’s just go and throw the first punch.”

Iowa did more than throw the first punch.

Sophomore Jake Kelly played through a fever and a sinus infection to record a double-double. Tate, a senior playing his last contest in Carver, limped up and down the court on his bum ankle to play 42 minutes and score 15 points. Gatens and junior Devan Bawinkel went the distance in the double-overtime thriller, playing all 50 minutes and helping Iowa secure a 75-67 victory over the Nittany Lions.

“I have been part of some special teams and games through the years, and I am thankful for those,” head coach Todd Lickliter said at his press conference March 9. “I have to think that Saturday was one of those because of our guys’ determination, perseverance, and team approach.

“The character of our guys has shown over and over because they have responded to the next game with a competitive spirit.”

This wasn’t the only time Iowa has shown its mettle during the season. After letting Wisconsin erase a five-point lead in the last 26 seconds to force overtime on Jan. 21, Lickliter’s squad didn’t roll over and give the Badgers the game.

Instead, Iowa again threw the first punch, knocking out Wisconsin 73-69 in overtime.

“I just think we’re a young team; we’re just maturing,” Kelly said. “We don’t like losing. We’re a competitive group of guys.”

It was more of the same against Michigan a month later. With the Hawkeyes up 20-8 early in the first half, the Wolverines exploded for a 14-0 run, gaining the halftime advantage. But it still wasn’t enough to keep Iowa down, as it defeated Michigan in overtime, 70-60.

“I would be hard pressed to think of a game where they weren’t competing,” Lickliter said on March 7. “We have had some setbacks and some tough times, and these guys haven’t hung their heads or felt sorry for themselves. They just seize the next opportunity.

“What a great lesson. I hope that people look at them and respect and appreciate the way they have approached it.”

The adversity won’t stop just because the regular season is over. On Thursday, Iowa will play Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Yes, the same Michigan the Hawkeyes disposed of in overtime two-and-a-half weeks ago.

This time around, Tate should play more than four minutes, and even Peterson — who has missed six-consecutive games after suffering a hamstring injury on Feb. 11 — might get some floor time.

“Whenever we lose a guy or know a guy’s going to be out for awhile, you feel like you have a sense of responsibility to step up,” sophomore Jarryd Cole said. “I think everybody on the team takes that to heart, and he tries to do everything he can to take up for it.”

But even if Peterson doesn’t recover in time for Thursday, and even if Tate can’t play 35 minutes because his ankle’s sore, and even if Kelly gets 101-degree fever and throws up in the tunnel again after halftime, the Hawkeyes will still fight.

They might not win, but they’ll always fight.

“We are fighting; we were just fighting the other night to compete and get the win,” Lickliter said. “I just think it is a fun to be a part of.”


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