Schwartz: The Win Iowa Needed

March 1, 2015

Written by David Schwartz

That steal.

My goodness, that steal.

It happened so quickly. Aaron White anticipated Penn State’s in-bound pass and secured what would become Iowa’s 81-77 overtime victory Saturday night.

One could easily dismiss the Hawkeyes’ win. It was just Penn State after all, the second-worst men’s basketball team in the Big Ten. One could be more upset that Iowa didn’t crush the Lions by 30. But I don’t see it that way. Penn State brought it against Iowa, and brought it hard. Made the Hawkeyes work, scrap, claw. Whatever you want to call it. And Iowa answered the challenge, earning one of their best wins of the season.

Seriously. One of the best. Against Penn State.

Saturday night was a test. It could have been another Northwestern, another road loss against an inferior team. White could have shrunk in the moment. Fellow seniors Gabe Olaseni and Josh Oglesby could have faded into the white and royal blue background inside the Bryce Jordan Center.

Instead, all rose to the occasion. White totaled 21 points, 14 boards and one Larry Bird-like steal. Olaseni played his usual solid game while also making up for Adam Woodbury’s disastrous, preposterous two points and four fouls in only 19 minutes. Oglesby played by far his best game of the season, which is made even bigger by the fact that his previous best game was Iowa’s previous game, the win against Illinois. Oglesby is on a roll. Finally. If Iowa can get offensive production in the backcourt from Oglesby, Peter Jok and Mike Gesell, in addition to White, Jarrod Uthoff and Olaseni up front? Damn. That would make Iowa a serious threat in the Big Ten Tournament.

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RE Woodbury: It’s time Iowa fans permanently write off being able to rely on him consistently. That doesn’t mean the 7-foot-1 junior won’t occasionally go off for 12 points and 10 boards. He’ll have 2-3 game stretches when he’s a genuine asset. But man, there are games like Saturday’s where he plays like he sniffed some of Curious George’s ether during pregame warm-ups. Anything positive he gives Iowa must be considered a bonus.

Thankfully, that’s how the Hawkeyes looked against Penn State, like they were bound and determined to win regardless of how Woodbury performed. Gesell’s three-pointer in overtime was nothing short of shocking. His right arm, weakened by injury, should not have been able to get that shot off. Not from that range. A couple of minutes later I nearly jumped off my couch as he blew by Geno Thorpe on his way to getting fouled. The tighter the game, the better Gesell plays down the stretch. (Usually. The end of the second Minnesota game remains confusing.)

Think back to the beginning of this game. Say, the first 20 minutes. If you were like me, you had a sick feeling in your stomach as Penn State made six, seven, eight straight shots. The Hawkeyes could have emerged from a timeout with tasers and the Lions still wouldn’t have missed. Penn State was, in a word, impressive. The Hawkeyes weren’t lazy on defense. The refs weren’t calling the game in Penn State’s favor. The Lions were simply playing out of their minds. Credit to them.

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At that point, images from the putrid Northwestern loss flew through the collective minds of Hawkeye Nation. Oh no. Not again. Not with Iowa slowly … creeping … closer … to a top-four seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

By halftime, Penn State’s magic had worn off and Iowa had, somehow, taken a two-point lead. Iowa led by seven with about seven minutes to play but couldn’t close the deal. The Nittany Lions, so often the loser this year, looked determine to finally win a close game.

Then, overtime. Just like against Northwestern. Two quick threes from Iowa made it seem like the Hawkeyes had learned some lessons. Penn State came back. Again. This time, however, Iowa snuck ahead and stayed ahead.

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Don’t fool yourself. Yes, basketball is a team game, but one of the things that makes basketball fascinating is that sometimes one exceptional individual can ascend so dramatically beyond the other nine athletes on the floor. White did that Saturday night.

He made the steal – let’s call it The Steal, a proper noun – then sunk free throw after free throw after free throw. Money. Ballgame.

As the cliché goes, it was a hard-fought win. Not a signature win. Not the kind of win that will make the NCAA Tournament selection committee stand up and take notice. Just a hard-fought win by an Iowa team that needed to know it could win – even when it looked like it might not be there night.

• Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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