CHICAGO — There was little danger for Iowa in its match-up against Northwestern Thursday night, but the Hawkeyes still had to sweat.
The Wildcats notoriously ruined Iowa’s seasons in other sports, but there was no such problems in the teams’ Big Ten Tournament first-round game. The Hawkeyes started strong, answered Northwestern runs and advanced with a 73-59 win at the United Center.
“We had timely baskets,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Iowa (21-11) now faces third-seeded Michigan State (24-7) in a Big Ten quarterfinal at 8 p.m. Friday. The Hawkeyes have a chance to have a signature win against the No. 8-ranked team and potentially earn an NCAA tournament berth. But Iowa’s players are thinking about winning the Big Ten title, not just slipping into the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think we get too caught up in all that,” Iowa senior Eric May said. “At any point in the season if you’re a bubble team, you go and win your conference tournament. We’re coming in here to win a tournament, win a championship. The rest will take care of itself the post season play.”
“I think that whatever a lot of people are thinking, we’re just here to win a championship and that’s been the goal and the task at hand,” Devyn Marble said. “And (today is) just another chance and opportunity to keep going towards that goal. Today was a stepping stone, we took care of business and now it’s on to the nex game.”
The winner faces either Ohio State or Nebraska on Saturday.
But it wasn’t easy, despite an impressive start by Iowa (21-11). The Hawkeyes led by 18 points in the first half, Northwestern chopped it to seven with 8:27 left. But Iowa answered with 3-pointers from Devyn Marble and Eric May to take it back to double digits. Northwestern chopped it to eight points with 2:02 left, but Iowa followed with two Marble free throws and a three-point play from Mike Gesell to seal the game.
May came up with the game’s most crucial plays to squelch any chance of a Northwestern comeback. May drilled a 3-pointer to give Iowa an 11-point lead with 7 minutes to go. When Iowa led by 10, he grabbed an offensive board that led to a Melsahn Basabe basket. After a pair of Basabe misses from the free-throw line, May rebounded and Basabe followed with two free throws.
May also provided the game’s highlight-reel play with a soaring one-handed dunk to put the Hawkeyes up 18 with 5:10 left in the first half. May took off from the blue B1G emblem just past the free-throw line.
“I’ve got to give credit (to Aaron White) for the way he opened that right up, and he would be mad if I didn’t give him a shout out,” May said. ” So he gets the assist on that. But in the second half it was offensive rebounds, those are huge. Key to the season with us is to keep the clock turning and at that point running the clock was on our side. So, doing that was big time. That’s what I tried to get after.”
Gesell had missed four games with a right foot injury to hit 4-of-9 shots. He finished with 13 points in 23 minutes. He didn’t appear tentative and looked explosive on drives to the basket.
“Mike’s a great player,” May said. “He makes solid plays and he’s another killer from 3‑point range. He can knock down shots. It’s just huge. He brings energy. So we’re really glad to have him back and really going at this full force.”
Marble led Iowa with 19 points. Basabe scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, his second straight game with a double-double.
Iowa tied a Big Ten Tournament record (Penn State 2001) with 48 rebounds
In the first half, Iowa put up a dazzling performance defensively. The Hawkeyes locked in on Northwestern, forcing the Wildcats to miss their first seven shots from the field. Northwestern shot just 32 percent for the half.
The Hawkeyes, conversely, started strong, although several close shots failed to fall. Iowa sophomore Josh Oglesby drilled his first 3-point attempt to give Iowa a 9-0 lead. Senior Eric May followed with an inside basket to take an 11-0 lead.
After the Wildcats scored their first points on a Nikola Cerina basket with 12:31 left in the half, Iowa followed with two Devyn Marble drives to extend their lead to 15-2.
But the Wildcats clawed within striking distance late in the half and trailed 36-22 at halftime.
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