NEW YORK — Iowa was a win from the NCAA basketball title in 1956, but Bill Russell and the San Francisco Dons got in the way.
All-time great Russell had 27 points and 26 rebounds that day in Evanston, Ill., considerably more than Maryland’s 7-foot-1 Alex Len could accumulate against the Hawkeyes Tuesday night in Iowa’s 71-60 NIT semifinal win over the Terrapins in Madison Square Garden.
That 1956 game was as close as the Hawkeyes have come to a national postseason championship. Iowa started fielding a team in this sport 111 years ago.
The National Invitation Tournament isn’t the NCAA, but playing in Thursday’s NIT final isn’t a bad gig for the Hawkeyes. No sir, not bad at all.
But forget the prize that is within reach when the Hawkeyes play Baylor Thursday night. It was the way Iowa won that was more satisfying.
When they could easily have been on pins and needles because of severe second-half foul trouble, they instead kept their poise and ended up sticking a knife in the Terrapins’ hopes.
The Hawkeyes showed they didn’t come to New York just to eat Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and try to get a glimpse of Donald Trump’s strange hair. They left their second-straight ACC opponent — and a future Big Ten rival — conquered.
It was a nice showcase for the blossoming Iowa program on ESPN2. Now the Hawkeyes go to ESPN itself for the only college basketball game on television Thursday evening. Which makes this an even-nicer showcase.
Who wouldn’t want to cut down nets on national TV?
Oh, this one wasn’t easy. You wouldn’t wish that second-half foul trouble Iowa faced on, in the words of New Yorker David Letterman, a monkey sitting on a rock.
But somehow, the Hawkeyes jumped off the pins and needles of having 10 fouls in the first 6:54 of the second half and reclaimed control of this game. Reserves like Eric May, Zach McCabe and Anthony Clemmons all came up huge down the stretch.
May is going out in style. When he backed up and buried a 3-pointer with 1:01 left to pump Iowa’s lead to 69-60, well, who better on the team to do it?
"It was wide-open," May said. "I was confident at that point."
He isn’t just playing like a senior, he’s playing like a big-time player. That isn’t something new, but it’s pronounced.
Iowa got off to a fabulous start in the first 15 minutes, turning the Terps into a turnover not waiting long to happen. But Maryland didn’t become a 25-win team by being heartless. It pulled itself together in the final five minutes of the half to make a game of it, and it rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half to again push hard.
But Iowa fought through its foul woes and never let Maryland come within a single possession of tying or leading.
Now let’s talk about Iowa’s Devyn Marble. He was brilliant from the get-go. As much as his 21 points, it was his hustle and smarts that stood out. There was none of the out-of-control Marble of his younger days.
He took the right shots at the right times, and got the ball to the right teammates at the right time.
There’s no better time to pull everything together than the end of the season. But Iowa’s not at the end yet. There’s Baylor, Thursday.
It’s kind of fun, don’t you think?