IOWA CITY — It was a most peculiar game in many aspects, yet it felt so right for Iowa.
“A win is a win,” said a pleased fan leaving Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday evening. But some wins are better than others, and this was one of the better ones.
It wasn’t a great achievement in terms of importance, and it certainly wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing victory in Hawkeyes men’s basketball annals. Beating Northwestern at home has almost always met expectatons, not produced joy.
But Iowa’s 56-51 triumph over the Wildcats felt so good to the victors and their 12,555 fans here. It was needed, and it was earned.
“I can’t imagine if you’re a Hawkeye fan walking out of here disappointed with this group,” said Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter.
In fact, the vibe was surprisingly good from before tip-off until Jarryd Cole’s last-second shot block to punctuate the win with a crowd-delighting exclamation point.
Maybe it was the pleasing weekend weather that established the good feelings. Maybe it was the accommodating 5 p.m. starting time. Maybe it was reduced ticket prices.
Whatever the case, this wasn’t a Carver with wide swathes of empty seats, or of fans looking for any excuse to climb up the steps early for a head-start on beating traffic. The mood was good, and the Hawkeyes added to it with 40 minutes of effort.
“This crowd showed up to support a group of guys that have been playing hard and haven’t been rewarded,” Lickliter said. “I think that was instrumental in us playing with the kind of spirit we needed to complete this game.
This wasn’t a woeful Wildcats roster. This was a team that had done the unthinkable two weeks earlier and won at Michigan State. This was a team that had won four of its previous five Big Ten games, and had the NCAA tournament in at least some corner of its mind.
“They’re very capable,” Lickliter said. “Very capable.”
But the Hawkeyes played defense.
Northwestern’s 37.5 percent shooting from the field was better than Iowa’s, but it certainly wasn’t good enough to offset the Hawkeyes’ aggressiveness. Each time it seemed the Wildcats were wresting momentum away, it got wrested right back.
Usually, a 3-pointer did the trick. The “peculiar” aspects of this game mentioned earlier? Those would be topped by Iowa making 12 threes, and just two 2-point baskets. Thirty of the Hawkeyes’ 40 shot-attempts were 3-pointers.
Playing a 1-3-1 defense that clogs the arteries to the hoop, Northwestern virtually begs you to keep chucking threes. Iowa kept chucking them.
It wasn’t as if the Wildcats’ offense looked much more well-rounded. They shot more threes than twos, too. Craig Moore put up 18 shots for NU. All were from beyond the arc. Only six went in.
Guard Devan Bawinkel got his first start for Iowa. He shoots threes. In fact, all but four of his 90 shots this season have been threes.
He made a 3-pointer 33 seconds into this game. He made a trey with 1:05 left in the game for a 48-46 lead that Iowa didn’t surrender.
Bawinkel had missed his previous seven shots before that big basket — and one was even a 2-pointer! But when he was open and the game was up for grabs, he didn’t hesitate to try another. The swish helped make those 12,555 fans and his teammates feel good. It made Bawinkel feel good, too. How do we know this?
“It just feels good to win,” Bawinkel said. “It feels really good to win. To beat a Big Ten team just feels really good nowadays.”
This is still a team that’s 3-8 in the Big Ten and may have to do well just to match its 5-13 league mark of last year. This is still a green club with deficiencies and voids. Rome isn’t being built in a day, or two years.
But when rolling over and playing dead might have been the easiest performance to give, at least these guys have chosen something far more dignified. Guard Jeff Peterson certainly has.
Peterson played 40 minutes. He lost the ball six times, but had four steals, five assists, and a team-high 16 points. He followed Bawinkel’s biggest 3-pointer of the year by stripping Northwestern’s Michael Thompson of the ball and sinking two free-throws after Thompson’s frustration foul.
Then, with 5.6 seconds remaining, Peterson secured the win with another pair of foul shots.
Peterson needed this win. Everyone in his locker room did, as well. There was a reason Lickliter was high-fiving fans on his way off the arena floor.
“Losing and learning is not as bad as losing and not learning,” said Lickliter, “but it sure isn’t much fun.”
A 4-game losing streak that began with a giveaway at Penn State and ended with something yucky at Indiana had ended.
It was a sunny Saturday here, outside and within the gymnasium. A lot of yucky stuff had melted away, if only for a day.
A win is a win.