IOWA CITY — Nearly a year ago the Iowa men’s basketball team limped into a pre-Thanksgiving match-up against Campbell after suffering a 23-point loss to Creighton.
The Hawkeyes’ fragile egos were nearly shattered in a 16-point loss to Campbell. After a porous defensive effort in the first half, the Hawkeyes continued their defensive woes and made up for it with poor shot selection.
Fast forward to Saturday night. Iowa trailed 38-15 to Gardner-Webb, which hails from Campbell’s conference. Iowa sloppily gave up 11 turnovers and missed all eight 3-point shots. It was a crossroads gut-check moment for the Hawkeyes. Would they show the expected year-to-year improvement and get back into the game or fall apart like last year’s Hawkeyes?
After giving up just 18 second-half points in a 65-56 win, it was obvious the team had its answer.
“I think we buy into the defensive end a little bit more,” Iowa sophomore Aaron White said. “When you give up 18 points in the second half, that’s the difference. Last year we would have just tried to put 60 on them in the second half.”
There’s also a difference in depth and versatility. Freshman center Adam Woodbury was dominant midway through the second half. He finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, and most came in the second half. Twice he kept possessions alive with an offensive rebound and followed with baskets in the post.
Woodbury left the game with 9:11 left after hitting a pair of free throws to tie the game at 44-44. He smacked hands and bumped fists to a rousing ovation.
“He was really excited about making the free throws,” McCaffery said. “He said, ‘All day, Coach, all day.’”
“I was just trying to bring some energy and rub off the other guys and spark a run or two and it ended up working,” Woodbury said.
Iowa’s depth showed with bench players Melsahn Basabe and Josh Oglesby each playing a major role. Basabe, a forward, challenged shots defensively, and Oglesby got into a shooting groove. He hit three 3-pointers and led the Hawkeyes with 13 points. That effort came after he missed 13 of his first 14 3-point attempts this season.
Forward Zach McCabe bounced back from a pair of subpar performances to produce a well-rounded night. McCabe had eight points, six rebounds, three assists, two steals, two blocks and only one turnover in 24 minutes. He also drilled a pair of 3-pointers wrapped around a Gardner-Webb basket that cut Iowa’s deficit from 10 points to six during a vital 27-4 run.
“I think we have a lot more weapons,” McCaffery said. “We can tweak lineups. We can make sure that we have fresh legs out there. When Zach was really playing well in the first part of the second half, last year I would have left him in. I took him out. He was exhausted. Aaron White, same thing. So they were able to go back in.
“Then when we put Mel in, he played with energy. And I put Eric May in, and Josh was playing so well, because I knew he could guard (Max) Landis. And I just had a lot more options to go to when I know I need a stop or I know I need somebody to go against the zone, and everybody so far has been really good in accepting those roles.”
Iowa (4-0) heads to the Cancun Challenge aiming for only its second 5-0 start since 2004. The Hawkeyes face Western Kentucky (2-1) on Tuesday and the winner of DePaul (2-1) and Wichita State (4-0) on Wednesday. Both Western Kentucky and Wichita State advanced to the NCAA tournament last year, so Saturday’s comeback was vital for Iowa to build confidence as the team’s schedule improves.
“You know this won’t be the last time it’s tested,” McCaffery said. “It’s going to be tested almost every game. You have to be able to prove that you can come back. You get behind; you’ve got to come back. You can’t rattle. You’ve got to understand what’s necessary.”
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