IOWA CITY – The 20th anniversary of Chris Street’s death was observed in Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday night with a halftime ceremony that was upbeat and dignified, not maudlin.
But the real honoring began immediately after the game tipped off. Iowa’s 2013 Hawkeyes played like a team captained by the 1993 Chris Street. Hard-nosed and hearty. Full of fire and fun, feeding off the crowd’s energy and giving the crowd reason to feed off the team’s.
Iowa’s 70-66 victory over now-former Big Ten-unbeaten Wisconsin was intense, on the court and in the stands. As much as it looked like it would for a while, it didn’t come easily. But it wouldn’t be a good win without it coming against a good opponent, and Bo Ryan’s Badgers are never anyone’s fools.
The Hawkeyes built a bridge too large for Wisconsin to cross, stomping to a 34-18 lead built on terrific defense and the kind of ball-protection (just two turnovers in the half) that is the Badgers’ usual identity.
It was still a 15-point Iowa advantage with seven minutes left, then Wisconsin woke up and the Hawkeyes cooled down. But in the final 22 seconds, after the lead was trimmed to three points and knuckles throughout the arena had turned white, Devyn Marble and Aaron White each hit a pair of foul shots.
Meltdown averted. The better team this night, without any doubt to anyone wearing red and white or black and gold, prevailed.
“To our credit, we fought back and made it a game,” Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close said. “But they were in control all the way.”
Marble made a lot of plays down the stretch. Freshmen guards Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell made a lot of plays, period. Melsahn Basabe and Eric May gave Iowa good stuff off the bench.
Then there was sophomore forward White, who was four months old when Street died. You weren’t being overly sentimental if you saw some of Street in White this night.
When White swiped the ball, drove over half the court, and flipped the ball off the glass and in the basket while getting fouled by Ben Brust with 6:04 left in the half, the mood in the arena was euphoric. White made the subsequent foul shot for a 3-point play and a 26-10 Iowa lead.
In transition 25 seconds later, White took a great set-up from Clemmons and rifled down a dunk to lift the crowd into orbit.
“He plays a lot like Chris Street,” said Close, who was an assistant to Tom Davis at Iowa 20 years ago, and was a mentor and close friend to Street.
“He’s got a great bounce to him, a great enthusiasm. He’s active. He reminds me a lot of Chris. He’s around the ball. He makes things happen, he’s unselfish. He’s a player. He’s a really, really good player.”
After the game, it seemed Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan didn’t want to let go of White when they met in the handshake line. Ryan isn’t No. 1 in the hearts of Hawkeye fans, but he is a fantastic basketball coach who likes players with desire. His greeting with White was clearly one of respect and appreciation.
“Iowa is as good as team we’ve played,” Ryan said later.
Wisconsin had clipped second-ranked Indiana in Bloomington four nights earlier. It had held its first four Big Ten opponents to an average of 50.5 points.
“We ran it and drove it,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “You’ve got to drive. You’ve got to drive and you’ve got to throw it in, and you’ve got to get to the free throw line (The Hawkeyes were 24-of-29) and you’ve got to get transition baskets.”
A lot of coaches say things like that as their teams are about to play the ultra-disciplined Badgers. Then they end up playing Wisconsin’s game. Wisconsin played Iowa’s game Saturday.
Not to get, you know, maudlin, but this felt like an occasion in which no opponent could ruin the Hawkeyes’ night.
“There was an energy level in the building that I’ve never seen before,” McCaffery said. “I’ve been in a lot of buildings in my playing and coaching career, and nothing like that.”
McCaffery wasn’t here in 1993. But for his team, the fans’ energy was more than sufficient. And vice versa.