IOWA CITY — Early Thursday night, a cashier at Coralville’s Kum & Go store told me a customer had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He bet me that Iowa wouldn’t score 40 points tonight,” the cashier said. “I had to take that, right?”
“Uh, right,” I said, not knowing the real question would be if the Hawkeyes’ Matt Gatens would score 40. Gatens is in a zone we haven’t seen from an Iowa player since, well, no one in this millennium. Adam Haluska had consecutive 30-point games six years ago, but even he never made 12 straight 3-pointers over two games against ranked teams.
The bet, by the way, was settled in the last minute of the first half when Zach McCabe made the Hawkeyes’ seventh 3-pointer in the half. Wisconsin, which was averaging a nation-lowest 51.1 points allowed per game, trailed 43-34 at halftime. Gatens had 18 of those Iowa points.
Then Gatens kept shooting. And scoring.
And the 14,248 fans kept standing and roaring, like they did the whole game. And shaking their heads in delighted disbelief like, well, the Matt Gatens bobbleheads given to them before the game.
But it wasn’t just Gatens and his 33 points that beat 16th-ranked Wisconsin, 67-66. This, for the second-straight game, was a Hawkeye blitz of a ranked team. They took it to the Badgers on the first possession when McCabe made a three, and kept taking it to the Badgers.
Melsahn Basabe again brought the energy, and the blocking and alterations of opponents’ shots. Aaron White kept going to the right places and taking the right shots. Devyn Marble had another pile of assists and has suddenly added jump shots to his ever-growing repertoire. The team defense was again exemplary.
Iowa grabbed the lead 10 seconds into the game and never let go of it, against a 20-win team renowned for patience, poise, and heady play.
You don’t get to 20 wins in February by being dogs, and the Badgers battled back to within two points of the lead with 20 seconds left when Ben Brust swished a 3-pointer.
But the team that had the cooler heads to go with the hotter hands was Iowa, and it held on tightly for its seventh Big Ten win. Marble made the two biggest free throws of his career after Brust’s bomb, and fittingly, Gatens made a pair with 3.8 seconds left to assure victory.
For this team to be 7-8 in the Big Ten and have four wins over ranked Big Ten teams is clear, undeniable progress. Fran McCaffery won’t be the league’s coach of the year unless Michigan has an utter collapse in the season’s last two weeks, but McCaffery should at least be in the conversation.
But forget bigger-picture stuff, like Iowa getting its first two-game season-sweep of Wisconsin since 1995. This was a transcendent night in Hawkland.
To me, the image that carried the night came before this thing even tipped off. Throngs of the 2,000 or so Iowa students who seized advantage of free tickets and free pizza went to the sideline after Iowa’s warm-up drill, and the Hawkeye players ran a high-five drill with their age-peers.
For the first time in so long, this really felt like a program in full. Students, adult fans and team were all eagerly looking forward to this game even if it was tipped at 8:06 p.m. on a rotten weather night. It was good karma to treat the students that way, and it will spawn another generation of adult fans if McCaffery’s teams continue to give efforts like the last two.
On the heels of whipping Indiana four days earlier, the excitement for this game was clear and present. The home team responded by playing for 40 minutes. It did more than make shots. It got Wisconsin, which almost always protects the basketball as if it is guarding a head of state, to turn the ball over 11 times in the first half alone.
Some nights, you simply know you’re beat. When an opposing player drains his first five 3-pointers, then makes two more on consecutive possessions a little later, you know you’re in the wrong loud gym at the wrong time.
No matter how or where Iowa’s season ends, this week was a keeper. Just like the senior guard from Iowa City who kept pouring in shot after shot. Again.
Now, for some quotes.
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery:
We had some tough losses. There have been a couple nights we just didn’t play well. Everybody was sideways. You’re coming in the locker room, you’re disappointed, you’re disappointed in yourself, we’re disappointed as coaches, you’re trying to figure it out.
But that’s what the journey’s all about. You got to fight through it. You got to keep coming. They know that I’m going to stay positive. Even if I rip ‘em during a timeout, I’m going to stay positive with them, I’m going to keep teaching and get better.
When we break the film down, it might not be pleasant to watch, it’s the team and the coaching staff, they’re not getting embarrassed. It’s a learning situation.
What you’re seeing is a young team get better and learn from their mistakes and hopefully now can we go on the road and play with the kind of confidence we’re playing with right now. …
When (Gatens) was the last one in off the floor, they ran to him and lifted him up off the floor. As happy as I’m sure he is, they were more happy for him. To me it showed an incredible level of respect for a guy, how hard he’s worked, his professionalism, his captaincy, how he leads. That’s the way it should be.
So proud of (Gatens), so happy for him. He deserves it. I love that kid. Playing his heart out, really. It’s impressive to watch.
He’s not missing. When you drop 30 points and then come back and have 33, that’s pretty impressive. … He came out and played even better than he did the other night. It’s unreal.
Dev’s really putting it right on the money for him to make it. It’s a team effort, but he’s knocking them down, so I’m going to give him all the credit.
As a player, you’re just trying to keep finding him and keep feeding him.
We’re real happy for him. This is his last go-around. … Sharing these moments with him is real special.
(On getting lifted up on his teammates’ shoulders in the Iowa locker room after the game): I appreciated it. It was a lot of fun, all those younger guys and even the seniors. That’s what it’s all about, guys celebrating together, a big victory. I don’t like taking a lot of the credit, them putting me on their shoulders. But they wanted to do that, and it means a lot to have the support of them. And they fought their butts off as well.
Hopefully we can continue to play this way, both ends of the floor. This young team is figuring it out and figuring it out at a good time.
For more Gatens comments, go to this video.