STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — With a physical team battling in front of them and plenty of open chairs around them, Iowa’s players gathered in their locker room at halftime and accepted that their effort wasn’t good enough Saturday afternoon.
Once again, it came down to toughness. Toughness at the free-throw line. Toughness in the paint. Toughness grabbing rebounds. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery issued that challenge once again, and his team responded favorably.
No. 15 Iowa (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) battled Penn State (13-13, 4-9 Big Ten) relentlessly in the second half, rallying from a two-point halftime deficit to win 82-70 at Bryce Jordan Center. After missing five free throws in the first half (5 of 10), the Hawkeyes sank 26 of 30 after halftime. The Hawkeyes hit 5 of 10 3-point attempts in the second half after missing 7 of 9 in the first. And Iowa battled more defensively than it did shortly before halftime.
It was all about mindset, McCaffery said. Iowa scored on its first five possessions, then coasted the rest of the first half. The mentality had to change.
“When you play Penn State, you know they’re going to fight you,” McCaffery said. “You know it’s going to be physical. You’ve got to be able to play through that physicality. I thought in the first half they were better at it than we were. That’s why they were up by two. That’s why they came back. I think we hit a bunch of shots early and we softened a little bit.
“I thought in the second half we were much tougher, much tougher defensively, much tougher on the glass. Playing through contact. A different team, almost, I thought.”
The teams traded points for early portion of the second half with Penn State holding a 44-42 lead. Then Iowa finally gained traction on offense and held tight on defense. The Hawkeyes reached the foul line on three consecutive possessions, leading to four points and a two-point lead. Then, just before the shot clock expired, Iowa’s Devyn Marble launched a 3-pointer from the right corner to push Iowa’s lead to 49-44.
After a pair of baskets by Penn State’s D.J. Newbill sandwiched around an Aaron White bucket, Iowa guard Mike Gesell showed the grit the team needed. With the shot clock dwindling down, Gesell called for a pass from White, who was near the right side of the basket. Gesell caught the ball in the right corner and drilled a 3-pointer to put Iowa ahead 54-48. It seemed to change the game’s complexion.
“Penn State is a team that when you drive, they really collapse on the ball,” Gesell said. “Whitey, he’s a very good finisher around the rim, but my guy sank all the way in and I was open. Whitey didn’t know exactly how much time was on the clock, the shot clock was running down, and I knew I had to be aggressive to tell him I was open. He made a very good play by dishing out, and I was able to knock it down.”
Gesell later added a 3-pointer to boost the lead to 10. The Hawkeyes finished the game by scoring on their last 11 possessions. Gesell drilled a 28-foot 3-pointer with 18 seconds left to preserve a double-digit margin.
But the game wasn’t about the scores as it was the toughness. Iowa now has won three straight road Big Ten games for the first time since 1996-97. The Hawkeyes have four road Big Ten wins, the same number of league victories in McCaffery’s first season. Once again, they proved their mettle when doubt had its chance to creep in, like in previous losses.
“I’m very proud of our team,” Gesell said. “We went through a lot of adversity (Saturday) and any road Big Ten win is a good win on your resume. Penn State, they’ve been playing very good basketball lately. Their team is going to battle you for a full 40 minutes. It’s one of the most physical games we’ll play in the Big Ten, so I’m very proud of our team to fight through that.”
So there won’t be a loss to compare to some of the grueling ones, like against Ohio State or Michigan State. The Hawkeyes stomped an opponent they were supposed to beat and did so decisively.
“Basketball is not a perfect game,” said Iowa forward Melsahn Basabe, who scored 16 points. “You know how this conference is. You play well, sometimes you don’t play well, sometimes you’re playing hard and things aren’t going good. They battled and stuff rolled their way so just maintain your confidence and poise and be consistent with our mentality over the course of the game and usually you’ll be successful.”
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