IOWA CITY — It was a nothing sequence in a nothing game but it was far from a nothing play for Iowa sophomore Gabe Olaseni.
Less than four minutes remained Wednesday in Iowa’s 90-46 blowout against South Carolina State. After stealing a pass near midcourt, the Bulldogs’ Phillip Henry streaked toward an open layup or dunk. Olaseni, a backup 6-foot-10 center, had one thought.
“Don’t let him score,” Olaseni said. “Whether he tries to dunk it or not, I’m going to go after it.”
Out of nowhere Olaseni met Henry at the rim, slapped the ball into the stands and smacked his hand on the backboard. It was one of four blocks from Olaseni that night.
“That was one of the most incredible plays I’ve seen in a long time,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “The situation didn’t need it. We were up by enough points and he was well, well behind everybody else and he went and made a play. He has the ability to do that.”
Olaseni, a London, England native, notched career highs in minutes (19), rebounds (10) and blocks against South Carolina State. Olaseni’s minutes have increased, and he’s logged double-digit minutes six times this season for the 10-2 Hawkeyes. He averages 2.5 points and 3.5 rebounds a game.
“We have been watching him now in practice for almost a year play that way, and it is just starting to come together for him in games,” McCaffery said. “You see him play with an completely different level of confidence in himself and what is expected of him and what he expects from himself, knowing where to go, where to be, playing through a mistake, making a play.”
Olaseni’s confidence level has fluctuated based on his confidence level performance. His teammates and coaches have raved about his practice performances. But he often got down on himself in games, especially after a turnover or a foul.
“It used to be if he wasn’t in the right place, he would get down on himself, even though we told him, ‘Don’t get down on yourself. You’re fine. You’re going to make a mistake and be in the wrong place,’” McCaffery said.
Olaseni, 20, played basketball for only a handful of years in England before heading to Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan., for his senior year. He’s continuing to learn since arriving at Iowa, and he said the game is slowing down for him.
“I’m seeing plays ahead of time,” Olaseni said. “I’m understanding what it takes to win. I’m understanding what I have to do every time I’m on the floor.
“I try not to think too much when I’m out there and good things happen.”
Olaseni was 4-of-4 from the free-throw line against South Carolina State. Four of his rebounds were offensive, and he added two steals.
He played almost effortlessly and fearlessly Wednesday, which impressed his teammates.
“He’s my guy,” Iowa sophomore Aaron White said. “That’s always been the thing with him, getting comfortable on the floor, playing relaxed. He’s so talented and he’s so athletic when he just lets it come to him, that’s when he actually plays well. He’s blocking shots, he had 10 boards. He’s finishing down low. So he’s playing well.”