IOWA CITY — Something happens when Iowa and Purdue play each other in men’s basketball, and it isn’t good.
Please, these teams mustn’t finish eighth and ninth in the conference and collide again in the first game of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. As hard on the eyes as the two meetings between the Boilermakers and Hawkeyes have been, no one wants to see them meet at 11 a.m. on a Thursday in a mostly empty United Center.
Although, it would be best for the conference to keep another Hawkeyes-Boilermakers game as far from prime-time as it can.
But a win is a win is a win. Man, did Iowa need its 58-48 win in Carver-Hawkeye Arena Wednesday night.
The hangover of the Hawkeyes’ gutting loss at Nebraska last Saturday may not have fully worn off, and Wednesday’s tip off came with a dark cloud. Freshman point guard Mike Gesell was out for the game with a “stress reaction” to his right foot.
Gesell had been the team’s leader in minutes played in conference games, which tells you all you need to know about his value to his squad.
So the deck was shuffled in Gesell’s absence Wednesday, and it looked like it for much of the night. Iowa went the last 12:42 of the first half without a field goal…and still led 23-16.
Luckily for the Hawkeyes, they were playing a foe that was impotent offensively.
“Sometimes we simply couldn’t pass and catch, or we don’t throw direct passes,” Purdue coach Matt Painter rued.
Unlike in its toad-ugly 65-62 overtime loss at Purdue exactly one month earlier, the Hawkeyes did jump out to a lead Wednesday. In fact, Iowa never trailed in the game. It didn’t even have its lead shaved in that 12:42 without a basket. Defense cures many ills.
“We played phenomenal defense the entire game,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Webster’s may not have a word to describe the kind of defense the Hawkeyes must play to win at Indiana Saturday night, but let them enjoy this one. It’s an 18th win, there was no late-game collapse, and McCaffery was right. His guys defended.
The Hawkeyes out-rebounded a good-rebounding Boilermakers team, and made just nine turnovers with Devyn Marble in the role of primary ballhandler. He has plenty of experience running an offense, and did what was needed of him this night with 18 points and four assists.
“He was great,” McCaffery said.
Iowa’s woeful shooting (31.4 percent) combined with Purdue’s slog of an attack to give this game such a gummed-up appearance that it’s easy to neglect Hawkeyes who did have shining moments.
Aaron White was sturdy. Eighteen points, nine rebounds, and 36 minutes on a night in which his presence was sorely required.
The game-breaking stretch may have come in the ninth minute of the second half. First, Zach McCabe made an open 3-pointer. McCabe shot a three late in the first half that sailed wide left of the basket. Had he done that on the road, the ridicule from the fans would have been ruthless.
To not even pause before nailing that shot later in the game spoke well of McCabe. Thirty-five seconds afterward, Eric May showed an equal lack of hesitation when he swished a jumper in transition.
It was the first hoop of the game for both players. Iowa led 38-31 before the two scores. Had McCabe and May missed, this thing could have tightened up, and so could have the Hawkeyes.
Likewise, Josh Oglesby was scoreless for 38 minutes even though he got his first start of the season. Purdue cut Iowa’s lead to 49-43 with 2:17 left, and McCaffery called time 21 seconds later.
When play resumed, Marble got the ball to Oglesby in the left corner. He fired a 3-pointer that was all net, and the Boilermakers’ threat was thwarted.
“I’m going to keep going to him,” McCaffery said.
It’s all hands on deck. Indiana is next, and a full squadron of Hawkeyes need to come up big for an upset to be remotely possible.