AMES -- If Mike Gesell ever wondered what it was like to shoot free throws during an earthquake, he got to find out Friday night in Hilton Coliseum.
The Iowa sophomore point guard had been so good, so tough for the first 39 minutes and change, like his team. But you come to a place like Hilton, where you could feel the floor vibrating as Gesell went to the foul line with 13 seconds left and his team behind 83-82, you better be good to the last drop.
Gesell missed both shots. The crowd noise surely rattled the player. It may have rattled molars in 14,384 paying customers' mouths. It probably made the Hawkeyes long for a more soothing sound, like a space shuttle launch or the first lap at the Indy 500.
At the other end of the court 1.7 seconds later, Iowa State's Dustin Hogue capped his 12-point, 16-rebound effort by swishing a pair of free throws for an 85-82 edge. Iowa's Zach McCabe couldn't hit an open 3-pointer for the tie, and that was that.
The Hawkeyes had been pretty good at making their threes before this night, but they were 4-for-17 in this cauldron. Which brought back memories of 1-for-13 at Indiana, 5-for-18 against Michigan State in Chicago and 5-for-24 against Baylor in the NIT final, all last March.
But while March's Hawkeyes were good, December's team is better. Iowa State earned its win, absolutely, but it was fortunate and said so. The Cyclones got whipped on the boards, 49-35, were often beaten downcourt in transition, and still lived to tell about it.
Which means they're pretty darn good themselves. Most teams that push a piano uphill all game end up underneath it. Iowa State played a closing concerto.
Losing this game tied up Hawkeye fans in knots, no doubt. But two takeaways from this ought to reduce their need for Maalox. One, this was as tough a road environment as the Hawkeyes will face all year, and they handled it beautifully ... for 39/40ths of a game.
Two, Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg is a basketball savant who doesn't toss praise around lightly. Let these words from the Mayor roll around as you wait for Iowa's next meaningful game, Dec. 31 against Nebraska:
"I think they're a great basketball team. It's a team that has all the pieces to make a deep run. Their length, their ability to shoot, the speed, the way they change up defenses ... I think the world of that team.
"They contest everything and they rebound the heck out of the ball. Makes and misses, they're out (in transition). You talk at will to your guys about getting back, but they still find a way to beat you down the floor.
"I love what Fran's done with that team. It's the best team we've played, no doubt about it."
Winners can afford to be generous, but Hoiberg was being honest.
Here's something he didn't say: He can put pieces together and coach, too.
The in-bounds play ISU ran coming out of a timeout with 25 seconds left and an 82-81 Iowa lead worked to perfection. Georges Niang took the ball to the right baseline, drove past Jarrod Uthoff and under the basket, and flipped a shot up and in over the leaping Aaron White. The Cyclones had a lead that wouldn't melt like their two other second-half advantages that Iowa wrested right back.
Time after time after time, the Hawkeyes withstood ISU's mini-runs with a lot of toughness and poise. It isn't necessarily exaggerating to say that for much of this game, the visitors looked like a Top Five team given their effectiveness in holding down a No. 17 team while on the road.
But Iowa State has had too much practice erasing opponents' leads to feel doomed. It trailed Michigan by 8 with less than 13 minutes left and won, trailed BYU on the road by 8 with less than 11 minutes left, and trailed Northern Iowa by 19 with under 17 minutes left and won in overtime.
"Let's quit making a habit of that," Hoiberg said. "Let's go out and be the aggressor and get some double-digit leads."
"We still have room to grow," he added. "That's what I'm excited about."
So does Iowa. People may only remember Gesell's missed free throws, but he played a great game otherwise. White (25 points, 17 rebounds) couldn't have much better. Uthoff will drive some Big Ten teams crazy, especially Wisconsin as it realizes what kind of long and skilled player got away from it.
Lucky for the rest of the Big Ten that Hoiberg won the recruiting derby over Iowa for Niang. The sophomore forward kept the Cyclones afloat in the first half, then helped send them soaring near the end.
"I think the game lived up to the hype every little bit," Niang said at a postgame press conference. "I think the rivalry is back. Both teams are great teams for the state of Iowa, but at the end of the day we all know it's a Cyclone state."
Sitting next to the player who scored 24 points, Hoiberg winced a bit and sarcastically said "That's nice, Georges."
The coach is happy to happy to hand off the Hawkeyes to the rest of their opponents. It was the Cyclones' state late Friday night. But it's a two-team state this winter.