Iowa Comebacks Through the Years

February 11, 2019

Written by Jon Miller

Iowa beat Northwestern 80-79 on Sunday night in one of the most thrilling comebacks in school history.  When you are down by 15 points with just over four minutes remaining, and the math related ‘win probability’ gives you a less than one-percent chance of winning the game, that’s something.

Iowa didn’t panic, they didn’t just settle for threes and oh yeah, it took a ton of heroics, but they got the job done.

This type of comeback conjured memories of Hawkeyes past…comebacks from seasons gone by. This is not going to be an exhaustive list of the best comebacks over the past 40 years, but it’s a list of the games that stand out to me.

1. IOWA AT ILLINOIS, JANUARY 1987: For me, this is the at the top of the heap. It’s my favorite Iowa basketball game, ever…Iowa trailed Illinois by 22 points with just under 16 minutes remaining…Iowa was 14-0 and ranked #2 in the country. Illinois was ranked #8 in the nation and the game was in Assembly Hall. Lou Henson was the coach for Illinois, arguably the greatest coach in Illinois history. While the Iowa-Illinois rivalry was a few years away from going nuclear over the Deon Thomas/Bruce Pearl affair, there was no love lost between these border rivals. Iowa would win 91-88 in Overtime. For those of you not alive to see that game, this was the most talented team in Iowa history. The backup point guard, Bill Jones, would have likely been Iowa’s starting point guard on every Iowa team since, or won the job, with perhaps the exception of the Andre Woolridge years. So many future professional players were on this team…They would ascend to the #1 ranking after this win and get to a school record 18-0 start to the season. This is one of the best college teams that didn’t win the national title, and these Hawkeyes were on the other end of a miraculous comeback, in the Elite 8 against UNLV. Iowa led that game by 17 points with 16:29 to play, a Final Four bid seemingly in the bag…and then they lost. To this day, it’s the most disappointed I have ever been after a sporting event.

But enjoy the comeback vs Illinois and appreciate the greatness of that 1986-1987 Iowa team:

1a. Some of you will have the 1993 Iowa at Michigan State comeback at #1, and I will not debate you. This was the first game Iowa played following the tragic death of Chris Street. Iowa was 12-3 and ranked #11 in the nation and found themselves trailing by 15 points with roughly 3:30 to play in the game…and then Val Barnes started raining in bombs, including a game-tying three with :20 seconds remaining after MSU had missed two free throws seconds earlier, leading by three. Iowa would win the game in Overtime, Barnes would score 29 and Acie Early would score 27. Iowa would beat the Fab Five of Michigan at home a few days later and rise to #9 in the rankings. Iowa finished 10-6 without Street, including 9-5 in Big Ten play the rest of the way. It was arguably the most emotional win in school history.

The first video clip shows the TV intro for this game, with Iowa players burying their friend and teammate. The second clip gets to later in the game, when Iowa was in a hole and then miraculously dug out.

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Those are the top two for me..and I won’t put any rankings on any of the rest…

IOWA at KANSAS 12/8/98: This one is actually #3 for me, but it has everything to do with me and my life at that time. I had been living in Kansas City since 1996 and had just recently gotten married three weeks earlier and moved to the Denver area just after the wedding…and would move back to KC in just three more weeks…that was all job related, boss sold the company, etc…so this was the first basketball game that my wife was around me for, and it was against Kansas…and I had a TON of Jayhawk fan friends.

Iowa trailed 59-41 with 12:50 to go in the game…down 18 points with that much time left maybe doesn’t qualify this one in the miracle department of the game at MSU or even last night’s game against Northwestern…but this game was at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Jayhawks were riding a 62-game home winning streak at this time. They were ranked #10 in the nation and Iowa was unranked. Iowa committed 31 TURNOVERS in this game…and still won. Kent McCausland, the most accurate three-point shooter in school history, hit four treys in the second half and Iowa was 8 of 11 from three in the second half. Kansas went just 11 of 23 from the line…and as with any comeback, missing free throws typically is involved in the recipe for a loss.

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Back to the personal side…I was in a foul mood. I was 27 years old and emotion still ruled too much of my life, especially relative to the outcomes of my favorite sports team…I was raising my voice at the television, and my wife saw a side of me for the first time and had had enough, and went to bed…an hour or so later, I was screaming with elation, and she came out of the room loaded for bear, wanting to know what my problem was. I said ‘Honey, Iowa came back and WON!’ She looked at me as if I had two heads…and turned around and went to bed.

She probably should have run for the hills right then and there.

What’s funny is that last night, as Jordan Bohannon made the game winning shot to beat Northwestern, with my nine-year old casually watching beside me and my wife sitting in the chair next to me, I calmly said ‘I don’t believe it.’ My wife said ‘You don’t get as excited as you used to…which is probably a good thing.’ Yes, that is probably a good thing…but on the inside….(‘IOWA CAME BACK AND WON!‘) I had also just told my daughter that Iowa typically doesn’t make shots in spots like this, so I was not optimistic…and she said ‘they will make it’. JoBo made it, and she said ‘HOW YA LIKE ME NOW?’.

The video picks up action with Iowa trailing 59-41 in the second half.

IOWA v GEORGE WASHINGTON, 3/15/96:  This was a first round NCAA tournament game, and six-seed Iowa found themselves down 73-56 over 11 seed George Washington with 8:21 left to go in the game.  Jess Settle and Russ Millard paced Iowa with 21 and 20 points, with Settles grabbing 15 rebounds to nine for Millard.  This comeback was more like an annoying drip of water than a barrage of three-point heroics…a blue collar comeback, but being that it was in the NCAA tournament, it stands the test of time.  This was also a game where Iowa led by 11 points in the first half.

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These are the four games that instantly come to mind when I think of Iowa basketball and comebacks, in their history. There have of course been others…Iowa trailed Purdue by 19 points in the first half in Mackey Arena on January 2nd, 2016…the day after Iowa lost the Rose Bowl to Stanford. It was Iowa’s first game after beating #1 Michigan State and it looked like the Hawkeyes would wilt…they trailed by 17 at the half and then went on an epic 46-20 run from early in the second half to beat #14 Purdue..Iowa wound up winning by seven. I watched this comeback from the Phoenix Airport, on my way back from Pasadena…it helped heal some wounds.

That 2015-2016 team was also 19-5 at one point that season, ranked 4th in the country at that point…they would get to 20-5, then lost four straight games, three to unranked opponents.

Last night’s comeback was special in its own right. It felt like a game you knew was coming…a loss to an inferior opponent that you just didn’t feel the program has grown past…that’s probably not fair, because this is the deepest the Big Ten has been in my lifetime and if you don’t bring your best effort every night, you’re likely to drop game you shouldn’t.

Iowa was down by 15 with 4:20 to go..then they were down by 12 with 2:54 to go and down by 11 with 2:09 to go.

From that point, the 2:09 mark and Northwestern leading 76-55, the Wildcats would score just three free throws the rest of the way, while Bohannon would hit three triples, Wieskamp tossed in one of his own plus a layup, while Bohannon and Moss would add in layups of their own, as Northwestern was trying its best to guard the three-point line.

This is a pretty important aspect to the comeback; Iowa didn’t settle for threes..if they would have done that, they would have lost. From :42 to :16 seconds, Iowa scored six points on layups while Northwestern scored three points off of free throws. Iowa trailed by five before the layup troika took place.

That was not only a great comeback, it was a smart comeback from a team that has exhibited a great deal of mental toughness this season.

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