Friday December 11th, 2015

When Thursday night’s game between Iowa and No. 4 Iowa State ended, no one knew what to do. Some fans stood dumbfounded with their hands on their heads, speechless. Others rushed the court in a dizzying frenzy, screaming jubilantly with their peers. And some others managed a bit of both, their reactions more shocked than excited.

The game should have ended at the 1:47 mark of the first half, when forward Jarrod Uthoff scored his 30th point on his fifth three-pointer and gave the Hawkeyes a 19-point lead.

It should have ended at 14:56 of the second half, when after Uthoff opened the second stanza cold, teammate Peter Jok scored 14 points in just over five minutes to re-stretch Iowa’s lead to 19. (The Hawkeyes led by as many as 20.)

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It should have ended with 2:39 remaining after guard Mike Gesell’s layup extended the Hawkeyes’ lead to eight after it had dwindled to just one point three minutes earlier.

But games in Ames, Iowa, rarely end as they should. Not at Hilton Coliseum. Not with Hilton Magic.

A Monte Morris runner with 10 seconds remaining capped a 9–0 run, giving Iowa State its first lead since it was 4–3 and lifting the Cyclones to an improbable 83–82 win to stay undefeated.

Iowa (7–3) played about as good a first half as any team has all season, especially given the raucous road environment at an in-state rival ranked No. 4 in the country. The Hawkeyes played quickly but under control, moved the ball efficiently in the half court and found open shooters. They beat the Cyclones down the floor almost every possession, which led to easy buckets in transition. Iowa was finding so much room, in fact, that midway through the first half the Cyclones switched to a 2–3 zone in an effort to stop the bleeding.

Iowa F Jarrod Uthoff scores 30 points in first half against Iowa State

But Uthoff didn’t care—he kept knifing through the defense and looked like a bona fide first-round NBA prospect in the process. His 30 first-half points (he finished with 32) surpassed a career high of 27 he set just a few days earlier against Western Illinois, and he was doing it in every way imaginable. He couldn’t miss from the perimeter, and when defenders stepped out too far on him, he drove past them with ease and created makable shots for himself around the rim. Inside, outside, dunks, runners, step-backs—they were all dropping.

Iowa State (8–0) had a miserable showing offensively in the first 20 minutes. It was far too passive and settled for bad jump shots or contested drives to the bucket. There was too much isolation and no rhythm, which contributed to 12 first-half turnovers.

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Despite the poor effort, though, the crowd was never entirely taken out of the game. The fans there had seen too many special moments, too many late game-winners and you-had-to-be-there plays. If a comeback could happen, it was going to happen at Hilton. And, suddenly, it did.

Uthoff went cold in the second half, scoring just two points on 1-for-7 shooting. Preseason All-America Georges Niang started playing like one, recording 12 of his 16 points after halftime. Jameel McKay, one of the country’s best big men in transition, stopped getting beat down the floor and wore down the Hawkeyes in the low post.

When Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm took over for the departed Fred Hoiberg this season, he didn’t want to be compared to Ames’s beloved son. But he did want to create a team atmosphere that reflected much of what Hoiberg had built: toughness, execution, the ability to finish games. All three were on display down the stretch on Thursday in the most Hoibergian of fashions, with many of the outstanding veterans he recruited—Niang, McKay, Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long—still around and still producing until the final whistle.

The thing about this Iowa State comeback, though, is that the deficit wasn’t chipped away steadily. There weren’t many short four-minute spurts that methodically cut into the lead. The Cyclones had lost the game, until they hadn’t. Until fans euphorically swarmed the players on the court, not really sure if what they had just seen had really happened, or if they had simply just believed it to be true.

Iowa did everything it could have to win on Thursday night, and it should have. But that’s not how things work. Not at Hilton.

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