IOWA CITY — Fran McCaffery’s next toughest deal here might be tethering his team to terra firma.
The Hawkeyes (15-13, 7-8 Big Ten) have beaten ranked teams in back-to-back games for the first time since the 2005-06 season, when they did it twice. Behind a career-high 33 points from senior guard Matt Gatens, Iowa completed the ranked manuever 67-66 over No. 16 Wisconsin before 14,284 Thursday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
That completed Iowa’s first season sweep of the Badgers since 1994-95 season. This started with a rousing 78-66 victory over No. 18 Indiana.
The Hawkeyes now have victories over four ranked teams this season and are headed to Illinois, which is becoming the Big Ten’s dirge.
Coach Bruce Weber is updating his resume. The Fighting Illini (16-10, 5-10) have lost nine of their last 10. Iowa doesn’t lack for motivation at Assembly Hall, where it hasn’t scored a victory since 1999.
The Hawkeyes are loving life right now. The students rushed the Carver-Hawkeye floor Thursday night. Gatens’ teammates lifted him onto their shoulders in the postgame lockerroom celebration. After long being the Big Ten’s dirge, the Hawkeyes are the Big Ten’s rock anthem with three games left to potentially bring down the house.
“To be able to see them kind of enjoy all of this hard work, to see the students rush the floor, the fourth ranked team we’ve beaten this year,” McCaffery said, “it just goes to show you what they’re capable of doing.
“Who knows where we’re headed right now.”
For most of Thursday night, Iowa was a team that dictated tempo, maintained composure and generally herded its opponent around the court.
This is where the “next step” talk comes in. The Hawkeyes have watched a few too many leads evaporate into losses that have turned their coach’s face rosy red this season.
Iowa had an 11-point lead with 9:10 left. It was whittled to 63-61 with 20.2 seconds left. Their coach’s face was on red alert.
“When you have a lead like that, you’ve got to shut the door with five, six minutes left and just let them know it’s over,” said forward Aaron White, who scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds. “I’d say that’s the next step along with a consistent effort like we gave tonight.”
It wasn’t until Gatens made a pair of free throws with 3.8 seconds left that Iowa could do the “In Heaven There is No Beer” thing.
“The reality is, for the most part, they executed the gameplan to perfection and they fought for me,” McCaffery said. “That’s ultimately what you want.”
Gatens’ shooting hand might be the hottest material in interstellar space at the moment.
Thursday night, he became the first Big Ten player to score 30-plus against two teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25 since 1996-97. He became the fourth Big Ten player in the last 10 seasons to score 30-plus in back-to-back games against conference opponents.
He made his first five 3-pointers, extending his consecutive school record to 12. He made his last seven treys against Indiana last Sunday. Gatens misfired on No. 13, but finished with seven 3-pointers (7-for-10).
Gatens’ basketball biological clock is ticking. He has three regular-season games left and the Big Ten tournament to try to lift Iowa into its first NCAA bid since 2006. He doesn’t want it to end.
“I don’t want to take the uniform off,” he said. “It’s going to be rough when I do, but this is the last go-round for us seniors. We’re giving it everything we have. We don’t want to stop playing.”
In back-to-back games against ranked team, the Hawkeyes have imprinted their style on the opponent, top 25 opponents to be exact. Now, the challenge is the road with trips to Illinois and Nebraska before finishing with a home game against Northwestern.
The Hawkeyes have taken steps. They know they will need to take a few more and they know that they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.
They have seen leads evaporate. They’ve seen their coach’s face turn magenta.
“Illinois,” said guard Roy Devyn Marble, who had 11 points and eight assists against Wisconsin. “That’s the next step.”