The Iowa men’s basketball team made a powerful statement on Thursday and did so in a place where visiting teams rarely make statements.
The 16th-ranked Hawkeyes ended more than two decades of frustration at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich., by pounding fourth-ranked Michigan State, 76-59.
In addition to improving Iowa’s records to 13-3 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten, the 17-point victory also ended an 18-game losing streak for the Hawkeyes at the Breslin Center.
Iowa hadn’t won at the Breslin Center since a 96-90 overtime victory in 1993. That game was played nine days after the death of Iowa forward Chris Street in an automobile accident on the outskirts of Iowa City.
Thursday’s game wasn’t nearly as emotional as the victory 23 years ago, but its outcome was equally as stunning because the game hardly was competitive.
"The tougher team won," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose teams are known for being tough.
Iowa led almost from start to finish, including 47-25 at halftime, against one of the premier teams in college basketball that was playing on its home floor.
The Spartans trimmed the lead to 13 points in the second half, but Iowa refused to wilt.
The team that blew a 17-point lead against Iowa State on Dec. 10 in Ames withstood everything that Michigan State threw at it on Thursday.
“I think you’ve got to thank Iowa State for teaching us a lesson and helping us understand that when you get a big lead you can’t just relax and think the other team is just going to lay down and quit on you,” said Iowa senior guard Anthony Clemmons on the Learfield post-game radio show.
Iowa senior forward Jarrod Uthoff said to the media on Tuesday that toughness would go a long way in determining the outcome of the Michigan State game. Iowa’s toughness was evident throughout Thursday’s game, but probably nowhere more than on the boards where Iowa had a 39-35 rebounding advantage against one of the best rebounding teams in the country, including 13 offensive rebounds.
“Ultimately, rebounding is really the key against this team and we outrebounded them,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said on the Learfield post-game radio show.
Iowa’s execution during the first half was close to perfect on both ends of the floor. It was strange watching Iowa play with more toughness and with more grit and passion than the Spartans, especially in the Breslin Center.
Michigan State’s home arena is where most Iowa teams usually unravel or wilt under the pressure. The current team isn’t like most Iowa teams, though.
Uthoff is playing at an elite level where few Hawkeye players have reached before. He and Maryland point guard Melo Trimble are easily the two leading candidates for Big Ten Player of the Year at this early stage.
Uthoff is hardly a solo act, though, for a team that has four seniors in the starting lineup, along with hot-shooting junior guard Peter Jok.
The 6-foot-6 Jok scored 19 of his game-high 23 points in the first half on Thursday to help Iowa seize the momentum.
Jok credited the extended layoff for helping Iowa get prepared. The Hawkeyes hadn’t played since defeating Nebraska 77-66 on Jan. 5 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“We had nine days to prepare for them and we’ve been working real hard,” Jok said. “We knew it was going to be a battle. But we were prepared for it.”
Michigan State had so many reasons to play well on Thursday, including finally having a healthy roster with the return of star senior guard Denzel Valentine. The Spartans also had the revenge factor on their side after losing to Iowa 83-70 in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 29 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a game in which Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said his team got punked.
But it still didn’t matter, even with Valentine playing extended minutes. He scored 14 points in Thursday’s game, but his presence wasn’t nearly enough to make the game competitive.
The Hawkeyes made nine of their 10 3-point baskets in the first half, helping to silence the usually raucous crowd inside the Breslin Center.
Iowa led by 22 points at halftime even though starting point guard Mike Gesell barely played in the first half after picking up two early fouls.
It didn’t matter what happened in Thursday’s game because the Hawkeyes always had an answer.
Clemmons filled in admirably for Gesell at point guard, while true freshman guard Christian Williams also made a key contribution off the bench.
Iowa only had nine turnovers against Michigan State’s pressure defense, while dishing out 15 assists.
The victory was especially sweet for Clemmons, who is from Lansing, Mich. Michigan State was the only team that Iowa hadn’t defeated during Clemmons’ time in the program. He now has a season sweep to cherish for the rest of his life, Iowa’s first against the Spartans since 1993.
Iowa and Indiana are the only Big Ten teams still undefeated in conference play. Michigan State fell to 16-2 overall and 3-2 in the conference, its only losses to Iowa.
The Hawkeyes now only have two days to prepare for a dangerous Michigan squad on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“That’s what this league is,” McCaffery said. “Sometimes, it’s a two-day prep, sometimes you have longer. But you just have to stay focused on the task at hand and flush this one out and lock in on Michigan.
“Our guys, so far, have really done a great job of that.”
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz also praised his 12-2 team on numerous occasions this past season for being focused on the task at hand.
This basketball season is starting to feel like the football season all over again. The Hawkeyes, just like in football, are defying the odds thanks to a strong group of seniors who are leading the way.