IOWA CITY – Not even half way through January and only 30% into the Big Ten Conference season, the identity of this Iowa basketball team is becoming clear.
These are the comeback kids. No deficit ever seems too great. Yes, they’ve had ups and downs. And they will get way sometimes behind. But this collection of players, win or lose, will play hard all 40 minutes. And sometimes 45.
The Hawkeyes bounced back with a miraculous finish on Thursday night, then dominated five-minute overtime to outlast Michigan, 93-84, in front of 11,498 fans at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“It just shows the struggle we have on our team,” said Kris Murray, who played every second of this fast-paced, high-octane game but still didn’t look tired scoring 27 points. “Wisconsin, Indiana, even Penn State… showed how tough we are. We never go without a fight.”
The Big Ten’s three home games, particularly the Hawkeyes, have those who left the arena early to get ahead of traffic likely regretting that decision.
Against Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener on December 11: Iowa trailed 60-52 with less than a minute left, then went on an 8-0 run – getting a bucket, stealing, and a three-pointer from Patrick McCaffery in the last 20 seconds – to force overtime at 60-60 before going down by 3.
Against Indiana on January 5: Down 21 points in the first half and still down 84-78 with 3½ minutes remaining, the Hawkeyes stormed back to steal an improbable 91-89 victory.
And now we can add Thursday’s performance to the comeback ledger.
Michigan was red hot for most of the night and made 14 of 25 three-pointers in the regulations. An opponent doesn’t often win in such situations. But Iowa only made six turnovers for the game. It got contributions it needed from Murray plus rarely used bench players Josh Dix (10 points, five assists) and Riley Mulvey (4 points, 13 minutes) to stay within striking distance early on. And it leaned on the team’s new rising star, sophomore Payton Sandfort, of late.
Michigan led 77-70 with the ball with two minutes remaining. But Sandfort stole the ball from Jett Howard, and a bucket from Filip Rebraca with 1:46 left cut the lead to 5.
After Michigan’s Kofe Bufkin was forced out of bounds by Iowa’s better defense, Sandfort buried a top-of-the-key 3 with 1:03 left to make it 77-75.
More:Looks like Payton Sandfort’s slump is over. That adds another dimension to basketball in Iowa
Bufkin silenced the roaring Carver crowd with a bucket to make it 79-75 with 29 seconds left, and inexplicably… Iowa didn’t have to make a mistake to get back into it. That’s because Sandfort rolled to the top of the fingerboard, quickly unleashed a 3 and fouled Bufkin. Swish, as he crashed to the ground. With the arena quiet and all the pressure on him, Sandfort calmly buried the free throw to tie it on 79 with 20.7 seconds remaining. A block by Dix at the end of regulation, and it led to an extension.
“I came off the pin and felt it on my hip. I knew we had to make one fast,” Sandfort said of his 4-point game. “Then taken out.”
“Yes, you could say that,” Sandfort said with a grin. “At the perfect time.”
Teammates love Sandfort. He brightens up a room with his smile. Murray said there wasn’t a player he was happier for than Sandfort, who went 0-for-19 from the floor in Big Ten play for this three-game Big Ten winning streak over the past eight days. He scored 22 points in 22 minutes in Sunday’s wire-to-wire victory over Rutgers. (Look, Iowa not always to have to play from behind.)
And he threw 24 of his career-high 26 points against the Wolverines after coming on with 5:40 left in the second half after coach Fran McCaffery was furious with his team’s defense and called a timeout.
From Kennington Smith:Good stories emerge in Iowa’s OT victory
Iowa trailed 51-44 at the time. The Hawkeyes continued to grind even as Michigan’s Jett Howard (34 points) seemingly couldn’t miss as they also tried to hold off star center Hunter Dickinson (13 points, 12 rebounds but only six shot attempts and four turnovers).
And then overtime.
Sandfort’s time, in this case.
He started the extra frame by continuing to find openings, even though Michigan was hyper-aware of every step he took. He whipped a baseline jumper with his trademark quick release to give Iowa one of the few leads of the night to that mark, 81-79. A few trips later, with Iowa at 3, he made the game of the game. Or the game’s co-play, you might say.
Murray threw up a right 3. Sandfort joked that normally he starts running to the other side to celebrate after a Murray 3. But on this one he saw the ball tipped and went for the rebound. In the air, Sandfort caught the ball and threw the ball in one movement towards the basket.
Off the glass and in, and he made another foul and made the free throw for an 85-79 lead. The Carver crowd now sensed that the home side would pull this off.
“I kind of forced that one,” said Murray. “And it was the right place, the right time. … I honestly don’t know if he saw the basket.”
No, Sandfort admitted. It was a blind shot. (Hey, if you’re hot, you’re hot.)
“I saw it flying through the air,” Sandfort said, “and went up there and tried to make a game out of it.”
What McCaffery loved about Sandfort’s performance on Thursday was that he did more than score. He had seven rebounds and three assists. That has been so huge with Patrick McCaffery missing his third game in a row because he was dealing with anxiety issues. Sandfort has filled his teammate’s void and then some, after the shooting problems at the start of the season.
More:Leistikow: Why Patrick McCaffery made his ‘brave’ decision and when he’ll be back
“Everyone loves him. He’s such a great teammate. So positive,” said Fran McCaffery. “We’re all rooting for him. When he’s cooking, it definitely improves everyone else’s energy levels.
You certainly have something to do with that.
The shot that broke Sandfort’s 0-for-19 streak? It came as Iowa trailed Indiana 23-4 early. The Hawkeyes were 0-3 in the Big Ten at the time and failed miserably at home. They were on the ropes, maybe for the season.
But Sandfort was stabbed off the bench and fired in a three-pointer to make it 23-7. A seemingly insignificant bucket. But little by little, the Hawkeyes would languish and win that game. Sandfort’s confidence grew. So did the team. The NCAA Tournament is certainly within reach.
“We’ve got a lot of our swagger back that we didn’t have before,” Murray said. “Guys play well, feed each other. Chemistry is great. This is a team that didn’t stop believing, even when we slipped a bit.”
We’ve learned a lot about the identity of this team over the past eight days. Now the Hawkeyes (11-6 overall 3-3 Big Ten) must muster the energy to keep it going. They have two more home games on deck: Sunday at 3:30 PM vs. Maryland, and Wednesday at 8 p.m. vs. Northwestern. Murray hopes it will be full on Sunday.
“I just got back to .500 at the conference. I mean, a week and a half ago everyone was in the dumps,” Sandfort said. “We were down 28-7 against Indiana. It feels a lot better now. We just have to keep grinding. It’s only one game, but it feels pretty good.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years at The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.