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Iowa State's win is Iowa's squandered shot

12/14/2013

Iowa State's 85-82 victory over Iowa on Friday night was many things.

It was a seminal moment, a truly great game, and a line of demarcation for two basketball programs that haven't had a truly marquee rivalry game since 1987, in a state that really does love basketball -- if you give it a little nudge.

Iowa State 85, Iowa 82 was also a thrilling, high-speed affair. It was 40 minutes of sheer, evenly matched entertainment. It was a clear indication that, in their twin streaks to national prominence, both the Cyclones and the Hawkeyes have not only become good but somehow become have done so at exactly the same time. It was a gigantic vibrating cardinal-and-gold love-in, or a high-decibel world-record attempt, or both.

It was, more than anything, a great win for Iowa State and coach Fred Hoiberg, which is starting to become a habit.

And it was a brutal, heartbreaking, kick-in-the-teeth kind of loss for Iowa -- a glaring, gobstopping missed opportunity for a team that was sure it kicked that tic in 2012-13.

Perhaps the most frustrating part for Iowa fans is the inability to direct frustration. Viewed from a more remote, detached perspective, Friday night's loss was less a breakdown than a very good 40-minute effort in a difficult road environment that came down to 13 seconds and two statistically advantageous circumstances, all of which went Iowa State's way.

The first, with 13 seconds left, is sure to live in Cy-Hawk lore for years to come. After Iowa State's Georges Niang made a baseline reverse layup (one of his apparently endless supply of post moves) to put the Cyclones up a point, Iowa point guard Mike Gesell pushed the right side of Iowa State's defense and got a shockingly quick foul call to put him on the line. It was a heady play, and a mental error by the Cyclones; it put an 80 percent free throw shooter on the line with a chance to reclaim the lead.

Instead, Gesell -- facing a storm of noise at Hilton Coliseum; "You could feel the vibrations in the building again," Hoiberg said -- missed the first. He rimmed out the second.

Iowa still had a chance. After the Cyclones' Dustin Hogue made two foul shots to put the Cyclones up by three, Gesell advanced again. The Hawkeyes ran a pretty simple wing-screen set and got a shockingly open look for guard Zach McCabe. Down three, with overtime on the line, it was the kind of look college basketball teams never, ever get. Iowa got it, and got it for one of the best shooters in the country to date this season -- a 48.5 percent 3-point shooter. McCabe was lined up. He was square. His shot rimmed out, too.

How do you even get mad about that? Where do you direct your anger? The gulf between process and outcome can be vast. Even with Iowa's issues down the stretch in the second half, it got the shots it needed to get to win the game. They didn't go in. What are you going to do?

All of which takes nothing away from Iowa State. The Cyclones trailed for longer during the game than Iowa did, but not by much; in any case, you knew the run would come. That is the chief strength of Hoiberg's program: The Cyclones have become so skilled and versatile on the offensive end that no gap seems too large for them to close before the end of regulation. The ensemble setup also allows them to cover for sudden productivity dips.

Friday was a perfect example. Guard DeAndre Kane, Iowa State's best player to date, shot just 1-of-6 (albeit with nine assists). But Niang and Melvin Ejim combined for 46 points, 7 assists and 9 rebounds. No worries, right? Meanwhile, Hogue -- a junior college transfer grabbing 26.4 percent of available defensive rebounds, and shooting 67 percent inside the arc -- added 16 boards and 12 points. And while all of the Cylcones have slightly different strengths, they are thrillingly non-traditional: Kane is a big, versatile ballhandler who can hold his own in the lane; Ejim is an undersized forward who uses his quickness to his advantage; Hogue might be one of the best rebounders in the country at 6-foot-6; and Niang is one of the quirkiest and most unclassifiable stretch-point-forward players in recent college hoops memory.

The combination works. With a road win at BYU and a home win over Michigan under its belt, Iowa State's win over the Hawkeyes was its third genuinely impressive victory of the season.

Iowa, despite all available evidence of its quality, can not say the same.

Friday night's three-point loss is unlikely to hurt this Iowa team the same way last season's series of close losses did down the stretch. The Hawkeyes were much younger and on the bubble then, fighting a desperate uphill battle against their own soft RPI. This year's team is older, deeper, stronger, and more balanced, especially with the addition of Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff. Iowa should be fine.

Even so: Iowa's two best chances for nonconference plaudits this season were an overtime loss to Villanova, 88-83, in the Bahamas, and Friday night. The Hawkeyes played good basketball; they are good. But they still missed on both.

So you can excuse Iowa fans if they don't quite feel up to the spirit of the occasion. Iowa State 85, Iowa 82 was a lot of things Friday night, from the basketball to the atmosphere to the symbolism of both programs' recent history. But for Iowa fans, it was another missed opportunity -- another instance of a bad habit everyone involved would be more than happy to correct.