IOWA CITY, Iowa – Jan. 28, 1993 is a day that I will cherish forever, a day that will live in the minds of Iowa fans forever.
Many of you probably already know where I’m headed with this column just by the date alone.
The 23-year anniversary of what has to rank as one of the greatest, and without question one of the most inspirational victories in the history of the Iowa men’s basketball program is barely more than two weeks away.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since an emotionally-drained Hawkeye squad made a miraculous comeback to defeat Michigan State 96-90 in overtime at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.
The game was played just nine days after their beloved teammate, Chris Street, had been killed in an automobile accident on the outskirts of Iowa City on Jan. 19, 1993. The Iowa players and coaches still were in a state of shock when they pulled off their improbable comeback at the Breslin Center.
The 6-foot-8 Street wasn’t just a great player, but also a great leader, who inspired others with his work ethic and tenacity.
His death sucked the life and the spirit out of the entire Hawkeye community. It felt almost surreal, how one minute Street was an over-sized bundle of energy and talent, and the next minute he was gone forever.
Iowa’s game against Northwestern, which was scheduled for the next day in Iowa City, was canceled in response to the tragedy.
Street’s death left a huge void on and off the court.
And yet, his teammates still found a way to prevail under the most unlikely of circumstances. Iowa hadn’t played a game in 12 days and the players were sluggish throughout the Michigan State game until it mattered the most.
Iowa, ranked 11th nationally, rallied from a 70-55 deficit with 3 minutes 15 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. The Iowa players said afterwards that Street’s presence was with them in the huddle, on the floor and in the lockerroom.
I still remember Iowa center Acie Earl pointing to the number 40 that was shaved on the back of his head as he and his victorious teammates left the court. That was Street’s uniform number, but on that night it stood for so much more.
The Iowa players wore “CMS 40” patches – over their hearts – in honor of Street. The Hawkeye coaches wore “40’ lapel pins.
The power of the human spirit was on display that night in so many different ways.
Michigan State presented Iowa a check in Street’s name, then a moment of silence was observed. Iowa led at halftime, 35-34, but the Spartans opened the second half on a 16-0 run.
Iowa trailed by as many as 17 points in the second half before storming back, largely behind the 3-point shooting of senior guard Val Barnes, who scored 29 points that night.
“Losing wasn’t an option for us,” Barnes said in an interview a few years after the game. “Chris wouldn’t let us lose.”
What’s amazing, or disturbing might be a more appropriate word from Iowa’s perspective, is that Iowa hasn’t won at the Breslin Center since that miracle comeback in 1993.
Iowa will try to end an 18-game losing streak at the Breslin Center when it faces Michigan State on Thursday.
Senior walk-on Okey Ukah is the only player on the current Iowa team who was alive the last time Iowa won at the Breslin Center. He barely was two months old at the time.
Tom Izzo hadn’t even started building on his legendary status as Michigan State’s head coach when the Hawkeyes last prevailed at the Breslin Center. Izzo was an assistant coach under Jud Heathcote at the time. Izzo held that position until 1995 when he was promoted to head coach after Heathcote had retired.
Michigan State had a solid program in 1993, but you could argue that Iowa had as much or more talent on its roster that season, even without Street.
Iowa would go on to finish 23-9 that season, winning one game in the NCAA Tournament. The team was good without Street, but you wonder how good it could’ve been with the fiery forward helping to lead the way down the stretch.
Izzo has since built Michigan State into a national power, leading the program to unprecedented heights, including seven Final Fours, seven Big Ten championships and winning the 2000 national title.
His current team is loaded with experience and talent. It’s also getting healthy again with the return of star senior guard Denzel Valentine from a knee injury.
Valentine didn’t play when Iowa defeated Michigan State 83-70 in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 29 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Or as Izzo said after the game, when Iowa punked his team.
Iowa has had some success against Michigan State at home. Heck, even Todd Lickliter defeated the Spartans once at home as the Iowa coach.
It’s the Breslin Center where defeating Michigan State has been next to impossible.
“I don’t think you can put too much into, hey, they have beaten you a certain amount of times, because they are one of the premiere teams in the country,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Michigan State. “They beat everybody a certain amount of times. They win most of the times that they play. I don’t really look at that.
“The bottom line is: You go on the road, you play one of the best teams in the country, you have to execute. You have to defend. You have to rebound. You can’t turn it over. You’ve got to limit their key personnel, under their averages. You can’t make poor decisions with shot selection, where you’re driving the ball on the break and half-court, because that leads to open threes and transition baskets and it gets us in foul trouble. I mean, all of that fits, and that’s what we focus on.”
It also helps to be on a mission, which describes the Iowa team in 1993. The Iowa players would not accept losing because they already had lost somebody who had meant so much to them.
The Hawkeyes will win at the Breslin Center again some day. It could happen on Thursday, given Iowa’s talent and experience.
But the overtime victory in 1993 always will stand alone because of what it stood for on that night. It was the start of a long and painful recovery process.
It was finally a reason to smile, albeit just briefly.