CANCUN, Mexico — Iowa matched its best start in nine years with a 63-55 win against Western Kentucky tonight in the Cancun Challenge at Moon Palace Resort.
Iowa (5-0) will play Wichita State (5-0) in Wednesday’s championship game. Wichita State beat DePaul in the other semifinal 74-63. CBS Sports Network will televise the game.
The 5-0 start is Iowa’s best since the 2008-09 season. The Hawkeyes last were 6-0 in 2003-04.
“We knew it was going to have to be a team effort when you come on a trip like this,” Iowa senior Eric May said. “We came together really well, and we got good minutes out of everybody. The starters played well, the bench played well.”
The Hawkeyes had to withstand several Western Kentucky (2-2) runs in the first and second half. After the Hilltoppers cut Iowa’s lead to 36-30, the Hawkeyes responded by scoring on five straight possessions. Iowa junior forward Melsahn Basabe sparked that run with a blocked shot, then followed with a pair of free throws and a 17-foot jumper to put Iowa up 42-33.
“I’m not saying it comes easy to me but I’ve always been able to block shots and rebound,” Basabe said. “I try to stick to my instincts and what’s natural to me and I was able to get a little scoring going.
“What established me tonight is defense and working hard. When you work hard, the right things happen.”
Western Kentucky rallied but Iowa pushed the lead back to double digits with Basabe hitting a shot off the glass and then Devyn Marble knocking down a jumper.
Iowa appeared to have put the game away when point guard Mike Gesell drove the lane and was fouled sinking a runner. He made the ensuing free throw push Iowa’s lead to 58-48 with 1:59 left.
But Western Kentucky’s T. J. Price drained a 3-pointer with 1:36 left to cut Iowa’s lead to 58-51. Marble hit a runner in the lane with 7 seconds on the shot clock to extend Iowa’s lead to nine points at 60-51.
Jamal Crook completed a three-point play to pull the Hilltoppers within six points.
“They just kept coming,” May said. “They’re a good team because they’ve been through a lot. They made the NCAA tournament last year. We knew that they were experienced. They know how to battle, and we did, too.”
After Josh Oglesby missed the front end of a one-and-one, Western Kentucky had a chance to pull closer, but Crook passed the ball out of bounds. Marble then hit two free throws to put Iowa up by the final margin with 10 seconds left.
Basabe had 11 points, five rebounds and four blocks in 24 minutes.
“Melsahn’s energy level was a major difference in this game,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “This is a physical team, this is a very athletic team. He really established inside that we were going to be, not only equal to, but better than them in the post.”
Gesell led all scorers with 19 points.
“Mike was spectacular,” McCaffery said. “He hit shots early. He had a great floor game. He had a big bucket in the second half when we were struggling. Just a real gamer.”
Iowa started strong, taking a 17-8 lead after Gesell hit the fourth 3-pointer of the first half. The Hilltoppers cut their deficit to 20-16, but Iowa stretched its lead to 10 points with six straight scoring possessions. Basabe started the run with breakaway dunk. Marble followed with a layup. Zach McCabe hit three free throws in the sequence, Basabe sank a free throw and Aaron White capped it with a two-handed dunk.
Iowa sank four 3-pointers in its first five attempts, but missed its final seven 3-point attempts.
Iowa held Western Kentucky below 29 percent shooting from the floor in the first half, and 33.3 percent overall.
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