IOWA CITY -- The prescribed emotion Sunday was less joy and more relief for the Iowa men's basketball team.
Sure there were smiles after the No. 19 Hawkeyes knocked off Purdue 83-76 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But in the wake of three straight defeats, just winning again was important for the Hawkeyes (20-9, 9-7 Big Ten).
"The world’s not ending," Iowa forward Aaron White said. "If we would have lost this game, the world might have ended. It feels good to get a win."
"I wouldn’t say we hit the panic button," said Iowa guard Devyn Marble, who scored a game-high 21 points. "We definitely had a sense of urgency as a team. It was important for us as a team to get this victory."
Purdue (15-14, 5-11 Big Ten) played the role of "get-well" opponent for Iowa early on, and the Hawkeyes stormed to a 50-37 halftime lead. But the Boilermakers quickly shed the patsy label and scorched Iowa as part of a 27-10 run and led 64-60 with 11:21 left in the game.
An Adam Woodbury hook shot cut Iowa's deficit to two points. After a Purdue traveling call, Iowa worked the clock on its next possession. With time running down, point guard Mike Gesell drove down the lane and kicked out to White on the right wing. White nailed the shot, only his sixth 3-pointer of the season, to give Iowa its last lead.
“That’s when I’m making them because I’m not thinking about them,” White said of late-clock shots. “I’m just catching and shooting in rhythm. That was a pivotal play in the game.”
The teams traded baskets until 42.6 seconds remained when Purdue’s Rapheal Davis hit one of two free throws to trim Iowa’s lead to 76-74. Rather than defend the next possession, Purdue Coach Matt Painter ordered his players to foul Gesell, who was struggling from the free-throw line. Gesell calmly drilled both free throws and knocked down five of six in the final minute.
“We wouldn’t have done that if they gave the ball to Marble, one of their better free-throw shooters,” Painter said. “But since they gave it to their worst free-throw shooter, I just didn’t like going to the shot clock with it having the ball with seven seconds on the road. If they score, the game’s more or less over. I was trying to extend the game.”
Gesell hit nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line as a freshman, but entered Sunday making just 64.3 percent of his free-throw attempts this season. He finished the game 8 of 11 from the line.
“It was very important to me," Gesell said. "Throughout my career I’ve been a very good free-throw shooter. I’ve been up and down this year from the line. So I think it was a little bit of a confidence boost for me to be able to step up there and shoot them with confidence and knock them down.
“I felt a little bit disrespected but at the same time I didn’t blame them. I had already missed one in the game. I haven’t been shooting well this year but at the same time I view myself as a very good free-throw shooter.”
Iowa had to battle for the win, something McCaffery cited as vital. The Hawkeyes were 1-7 in Big Ten games decided by single digits, so picking up the victory showed toughness. The Hawkeyes committed 18 turnovers at Indiana and cut that total to five on Sunday.
"I think for us it was important to have to fight the way we did," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "We had to take care of the ball. We had to guard. We had to make free throws. We had to be intelligent.
"It was a gut check, there's no question about that. I think, you know, we showed a lot of character."
The win elevated the Hawkeyes back to the Big Ten's No. 4 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament. Currently Iowa holds the tiebreaker over Nebraska (also 9-7) based on head-to-head competition (Iowa won the only meeting). If Michigan wins the league outright and Iowa and Ohio State are tied, Iowa earns the bye based on a 1-1 against league champion Michigan. The Buckeyes lost their only meeting with the Wolverines.
But there's plenty of time to worry about the league tournament and the upcoming NCAA tournament, McCaffery said afterward. Now it's about winning games and improving, especially after losing three straight. That started Sunday against the Boilermakers.
"It feels a little better to know that you went back to work, you put a game plan together, executed the game plan," he said. "They made mistakes. Every time you put a game plan together, there's going to be mistakes. But do we have enough toughness and talent and togetherness and character to go get the W? That's what we had."