In many ways the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis holiday tournament between Iowa and Villanova played out in a manner that the Hawkeyes were already well familiar with.
A team jumps out to an early first half lead and carries the momentum into the final 20 minutes seemingly on the brink of putting the game out of reach for the opponent, but over and over again they are unable to step on the proverbial throat. Then all of the sudden things start to change, and the team that once had the game in hand is back on its heels trying to stave off a furious comeback. They manage to hold on for a tie to conclude regulation, but the onslaught continues into the overtime period and eventually they succumb to defeat.
This script is almost identical to that which manifested in Iowa’s first round matchup with Xavier, when the Hawkeyes fought back from a 15-point deficit to top the Musketeers 77-74 in overtime. Except this time the opponent had changed and the roles were reversed.
A nine point halftime lead that grew into double digits was not enough for the Hawkeyes to hold off a scrappy Villanova squad and grab the tournament title on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
After falling behind early on Iowa quickly assumed control of the game behind the play of its second unit. Senior forward Zach McCabe and others started out hot from behind the arc, while defensively the Iowa press consistently forced Villanova turnovers leading to fastbreak opportunities.
The Hawkeyes’ lead grew to as many as 15 points in the opening 20 minutes, but eventually would be whittled down to nine at the half with Iowa leading 42-33.
While Iowa only shot around 41 percent to open the title matchup, six 3′s and twelve Villanova turnovers allowed the Hawkeyes to take control. However, a lead that likely should have been closer to 20 stayed within striking distance of the opposing Wildcats due to Iowa’s uncharacteristic inability to defend the three point line as well as some late half careless errors. Much like a night earlier against UTEP, the Hawkeyes once again held a lead without receiving a large scoring half from senior guard Devyn Marble, who had only three points on 1-7 shooting.
Iowa got off to another good start in the second half, pushing its lead back to 14 in the opening minutes. Much of its good fortune was thanks to Marble finding his offensive rhythm once again. The 6-6 senior kept the Hawkeyes in front by double digits until a series of team defensive errors opened the door for Villanova to get right back into the game.
With the lead at 55-43 the Hawkeyes allowed three consecutive three pointers in a span of roughly 70 seconds to Villanova’s James Bell (the eventual tournament MVP). The first two long balls came on lapses in communication by Iowa which left Bell wide open, and the third was nothing more than a contested heat-check that barely touched the net on its way through the basket.
With the Hawkeyes reeling Villanova continued to press its advantage. Numerous unforced turnovers by Iowa along with a continued failure to contest shooters led to a seven point ‘Nova advantage in seemingly the blink of an eye with less than five minutes to play.
Just when it seemed Villanova would run away with the victory and tournament title the Hawkeyes showed the same type of grit and resolve that led to their opening round comeback win. A McCabe three pointer and a transition dunk from senior Melsahn Basabe cut the Wildcats’ lead down to two. A Devyn Marble three point play with under three minutes left gave Iowa back the lead and momentum.
From then on a back-and-forth battle ensued as Villanova managed to sink shot after shot from downtown with Marble matching them shot for shot on his drives to the basket.
With under 50 seconds to another Villanova prayer from behind the arc was answered, giving the Wildcats a one point lead.
The Hawkeyes countered with multiple opportunities to make a basket before Marble was finally fouled on a put-back attempt. An 81 percent free throw shooter last season, Marble could only hit 1-2 to tie the game at 72.
A strong defensive possession resulted in a corner three at the buzzer for Villanova that was no good, and sent the contest into overtime.
An Aaron White three point play on Iowa’s opening possession pushed the Hawkeyes back in front, but consecutive Villanova threes gave them back the lead.
Marble continued to attack and keep his team close, and with Iowa down only a point with 1:11 to go McCabe grabbed a rebound that would have given the Hawkeyes a chance to regain the lead. However, a highly questionable foul call against the senior on the play sent Villanova to the line and him to the bench with his fifth foul of the night.
With the Wildcats back up by three Marble drove to the hoop and tried to hit teammate Jarrod Uthoff in the corner for an open three, but the pass was off target and sailed out of bounds. Villanova missed its next shot, but an offensive rebound and another less than apparent foul call on Aaron White pushed the ‘Nova lead to two possessions with under 30 seconds to play and effectively ended the ballgame.
When examining the box score, the reasons behind Iowa’s collapse and eventual demise are obvious. Coming into the contest the Hawkeyes led the nation in three point percentage defensive, yet allowed 14 Villanova treys. The Hawkeyes should have held a huge advantage on the glass against the smaller Wildcats, but were outrebounded 48-36. Lastly Iowa uncharacteristically committed 17 turnovers while being outshot at the free throw line by their opponent.
All of these statistics that usually go in Iowa’s favor ultimately offset other numbers that would have normally tilted an outcome heavily in their favor.
Not known as a great shooting team from behind the arc, Iowa knocked down a season’s best 11 threes on only 24 attempts (good for almost 46%). In addition the Hawkeyes forced a whopping 20 Villanova turnovers. If one were to see only these two numbers on stat sheet they would likely assume Iowa had won the game.
Unfortunately, mental mistakes and miscues left the Hawkeyes imagining what could have been. Had Marble not gone 6-12 from the line (an area in which he struggled all tournament long for some reason), or had Iowa simply limited Villanova to one fewer three pointer in regulation the outcome might have been different.
Hopefully all of this only serves to fuel a renewed sense of focus and motivation for the Iowa basketball team as they return to the states in hopes of continuing their early non-conference success. Tonight will be a great opportunity for them to show that the final result in the Bahamas was a fluke occurrence, as Notre Dame ventures into Iowa City as a part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The game will not only provide Iowa with a chance to bounce back from its first loss of the season, but also the opportunity to pick up another non-conference victory over a top 25 caliber opponent. Look for the Hawkeyes to come out with a little chip on their shoulder and filled with enthusiasm as they take on the Fighting Irish in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,000+ at Carver Hawkeye Arena.