IOWA CITY — Forget the won-lost records. Do wins really get much better than the kind the Iowa men’s basketball team earned Saturday?
The Hawkeyes’ 75-67 double-overtime triumph over 21-win Penn State meant the difference between going 5-13 in the Big Ten for the second-straight year or dipping to 4-14. So from a numbers standpoint, it wasn’t exactly significant.
From a pride perspective, though, it was huge. It was the kind of win that made every fan in the gym leave smiling in appreciation and admiration. Those who paid 10 bucks to get in got a genuine bargain.
An injury-plagued, ragtag squad comes to the end of the line in the regular-season and somehow guts out a win over a team that had won at Michigan State and Illinois in February.
Senior forward Cyrus Tate, whose Big Ten season basically was wrecked by an ankle injury, had his best game in two months. His frontline partner, sophomore Jarryd Cole, had his best game of the season.
Guard Matt Gatens, a freshman who is among the Big Ten’s leaders in minutes played, went all 50 this day in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He had enough left to stick all four of his free-throws in the overtimes.
Fellow guard Devan Bawinkel also played the full 50, splitting the nets with a 3-pointer midway through the second OT to retie the game. Iowa never trailed again.
Then there was Jake Kelly, who threw up, then threw punch after punch into Penn State’s midsection until the Lions were finally toppled.
“He is something else,” said his father, Bob Kelly. “He is one tough kid. He’s played with a lot of injuries this year that people don’t know about.”
The issue of whether Kelly would even play in his fluish state was in doubt all the way until pre-game warm-ups. Or was it, really?
“I usually do play pretty good sick,” Jake said. “My dad always says that. He came to the game today, said ‘Oh, you’ve got to play, you always play your best game when you’re sick.
“I was like ‘All right.’ I really didn’t want to, though.”
But Kelly declared himself fit to go in warm-ups. “He had the option,” said Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter. “He did not have to play. But he’s highly competitive and chose to play.”
Play, Kelly did. His teammates fed on that and played awfully hard, too. They got ahead, they fell behind. They let a 9-point lead slip away in the final 2 1/2 minutes of regulation. They sent the game into overtime on a Kelly-to-Cole feed with 10 seconds left.
Kelly banked in a 3-pointer in the first OT for an Iowa lead. Penn State rallied to tie it again.
They went to a second overtime. With 54 seconds left and Iowa up 68-67, Kelly banked another 3-pointer. This one rolled around the rim before dropping down. It was the kill shot.
Penn State didn’t score again, and the Hawkeyes closed their home schedule with a game that should provide lingering warm feelings for their fans.
Several hours after having a 101-degree temperature and an hour after leaving the game in the first minute of the second-half to vomit into a trash can in the arena’s tunnelway (“I drank too much blue POWERade,” he said), Kelly and his comrades were winners.
“When he first started the second-half, I could see it coming,” Bob Kelly said. “He got real white — even whiter than he is.”
But Bob’s boy is quickly becoming a bit of a mythic figure in these parts. He is the point guard Iowa didn’t know it had. He is the leader — through actions, not words — Iowa may not have known it had.
In his last seven games, Kelly is averaging 20.4 points in an offense that isn’t exactly free-flow. He had a career-high 11 assists Saturday. He blocked two shots.
The only thing he didn’t do was call “Bank!” on his two bombs off the backboard.
Joked Lickliter: “I said ‘Bank it!’ Jake’s really good at listening.”
In a more serious moment, the coach said “He’s going to be a terrific player because he’s skilled, talented, and likes coaching.”
And something else, something that was on display more than ever Saturday. The guy’s got heart.
The Hawkeyes are 5-13 in the Big Ten. Again. But this isn’t a 5-13 team. It isn’t an NCAA tourney team, but when Tate is healthy enough to contribute, it’s a different entity.
And when Kelly is unhealthy enough to contribute, all the better.