Last season’s Iowa squad would not have won Sunday’s game at Ohio State because it would not have finished.
The 2012-13 Hawkeyes were a frustrating bunch. Although clearly boasting a strong roster, they didn’t know how to win big games, how to finish them.
The latter is all that matters in college basketball.
Wichita State was down by 19 points at Missouri State on Saturday. But the Shockers finished.
Michigan State was down by 10 points against Minnesota in East Lansing on Saturday, too. But the Spartans finished.
Wisconsin faced an 11-point deficit at halftime of a win over Iowa last weekend. The Badgers also finished. The Hawkeyes did not.
That’s why No. 20 Iowa’s 84-74 win at No. 3 Ohio State was such a meaningful victory for the program. Sure, it’s the team’s first true signature win of the season. And even though it’s early in the conference season, the win puts the Hawkeyes in solid position for Big Ten contention.
Beyond that, however, Iowa proved it could finish a marquee game on the road. That’s the most significant lesson of this moment for Iowa basketball.
The Hawkeyes lost so many tight Big Ten games last season -- a year that ended in the NIT when the NCAA tournament seemed possible.
There was the four-point home loss to a top-five Indiana team. That three-point loss to Michigan State in Iowa City. A three-point road loss to Minnesota. A double-overtime loss at Wisconsin.
During Big Ten play last season, the Hawkeyes showed signs of growth and progress. And the run to the NIT championship game provided more evidence of the project that Fran McCaffery has been building since he arrived in 2010.
But the Hawkeyes continued to struggle in the crucial matchups that separate the contenders from the rest. In Iowa’s case, single-digit losses were the difference for a team still seeking its first NCAA tournament bid since 2006.
The “almost” routine had grown old entering 2013-14. It wouldn’t suffice for this group. Nope. Anything short of an NCAA tournament bid would be and should be considered a failure.
The Hawkeyes were too talented and too deep to end this season outside the Big Dance.
But then they lost to Villanova in overtime during the Battle 4 Atlantis. And they dropped a three-point loss at Iowa State that should have been theirs.
Last Sunday, Iowa played Wisconsin as tough as any previous opponent -- for about 30 minutes. The Hawkeyes were right there with an undefeated Badgers team -- in Madison -- until McCaffery got tossed in the game’s critical final chapter.
After the haze cleared from the aftermath of McCaffery’s bad night, the same storyline reappeared. Iowa had lost another major matchup. On the road.
So close, but ...
And there it was again on Sunday. Another chance.
Iowa battling with a relentless Ohio State squad on the road, a team it hadn’t defeated in Columbus since 2004. Zero wins in its previous seven trips.
But something refreshing happened Sunday. Aaron White (19 points) kept making tough shots. Melsahn Basabe (11 points, 10 rebounds) scored late simply because he knew he had to. And Roy Devyn Marble (22 points) was aggressive.
Ohio State had a three-point lead in the final six minutes. But the Buckeyes were outscored 22-9 in the final 5:57 of the game.
The Hawkeyes forced 17 Buckeyes turnovers. They controlled the game.
Iowa didn’t just finish. It threw left hooks and uppercuts on its way to a knockout.
The Hawkeyes were not timid late. They were not waiting to catch a lucky break. They snatched the win.
Now the Hawkeyes can focus on that rally and use it as fuel for the (near) future.
When the grind gets tough again, and it will, they’ll remember how hard they fought to leave Columbus with a rare victory.
And that’s a new reality for a blossoming crew because last season there were mostly bad memories.