In what could probably best be described as an improbable comeback, the Iowa basketball team came away with a victory in their opening game of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The matchup pitted the Hawkeyes against new Big East member Xavier, a team that has been a consistent participant and winner in the NCAA Tournament over the last ten years. With both teams entering the night with 5-0 records Iowa found itself challenged with facing its first tournament caliber opponent of the season.
Early on the Hawkeyes were noticeably tentative on both ends of the floor, missing open shots and failing to communicate on defense. Xavier, while shooting nearly as poorly as Iowa, jumped out to an 11-2 lead on two fast break dunks by star guard Semaj Christon and by grabbing seemingly every offensive rebound available.
Iowa didn’t help its cause in the early going as multiple players came up empty from the free throw line. Around the ten minute mark of the first half each team started to finally settle into the action. Devyn Marble paced the Hawkeyes while Christon of Xavier did the same for his team.
The Hawkeyes chipped away at the early deficit, finally cutting it to one with 4:16 left in the half, but a late Xavier run capped off by a banked in three pointer by Christon gave the Musketeers a 37-30 lead at the half.
While neither team shot particularly well in the opening 20 minutes, Marble often felt like the only Iowa player on the floor. His 16 points were just about the only thing keeping the score respectable as Xavier pounded the Hawkeyes on the offensive glass. A technical called on Iowa coach Fran McCaffery after the halftime whistle would push the deficit to nine as the two teams resumed action in the second half.
A renewed defensive focus by Iowa was evident to start the half as Xavier found it increasingly difficult to get out in transition as they had early in the game. However, the lead for the Musketeers would actually increase due to a frigid 2-15 start from the field by the Hawkeyes.
Iowa would then turn its full-court press, but gave up two three pointers in transition that pushed the Xavier lead to 55-42. At that point it seemed as though the Hawkeyes simply wouldn’t get enough offense to overcome the lead they had given to Xavier. McCaffery had been searching all half long for a successful lineup combination, but to no avail.
With 12:10 left in the contest Marble reentered the game for the Hawkeyes and turned what had previously been a comfortable Xavier lead into a dogfight.
In a little over a minute the senior guard knocked down two threes from the wing and assisted on the play of the night, a steal and blind pass back over his head while falling out of bounds to Aaron White for a transition slam. Another Marble bucket and a dunk by Melsahn Basabe capped off a 12-0 run by the Hawkeyes to narrow Xavier’s lead to a single point with just under eight minutes to go.
For the next few minutes of action the Musketeers continued to hold a 1-2 possession lead, as Iowa couldn’t seem to find the big basket it needed to tie or pull ahead.
With 2:06 to go the comeback attempt seemed to be for naught, as Marble was forced to exit the game with leg cramps that he had been dealing with for most of the night, and similar to those which knocked Xavier’s super sophomore Christon out during the 2nd half.
But Iowa refused to go down quietly, and baskets by sophomore guard Mike Gesell and junior center Gabe Olaseni tied and retied the score at 67 and 69 respectively.
The Hawkeyes would eventually find themselves with the basketball and a chance to take the last shot, but senior forward Zach McCabe was blocked at the buzzer sending the game into overtime.
About 40 seconds into the extra period and almost 41 minutes from the game’s opening tip, two free throws by Olaseni gave Iowa its first lead of the game (yes you read that correctly).
As the Hawkeyes worked to extend their lead Xavier would respond, tying the score at 73 all.
Iowa was undeterred and found itself in possession of a four point advantage with 1:17 to go after a huge transition floater from Mike Gesell and a tip-in by junior forward Aaron White.
Xavier would have one last chance to retie the game after gaining possession on a highly questionable traveling call against the Hawkeyes. The Musketeers found themselves with three opportunities to send the game to double-OT, but missed three consecutive attempts from beyond the arc in the final 19.6 seconds to preserve an Iowa victory.
The two biggest takeaways from Iowa’s rousing comeback were the play of Devyn Marble and Gabe Olaseni.
Marble placed the Hawkeye team squarely on his shoulders all the way up until exiting with cramps. He finished with 30 points (one away from his career high) and more importantly provided his teammates with an opportunity to close out a game that would never have remained close without his contributions.
Backup center Gabe Olaseni played tremendously in extended playing time off of the bench, finishing with his first career double-double (10pts and 11reb) to go along with four blocked shots. His 29 minutes on the floor were a career high, and his energetic play helped to carry Iowa through the latter stages of the game and into overtime.
With it’s big come-from-behind victory in tow Iowa will take on UTEP in the semi-finals for the right to play the winner of Kansas-Villanova in the championship game. The Hawkeyes will look to carry over their wave of momentum against the Miners and push their record to 7-0.