By Pat Harty
An Iowa men’s basketball team that just three weeks ago was left for dead came incredibly close on Sunday to going where no Iowa men’s team has gone in 20 years.
It was incredible because Iowa overcame a 21-point halftime deficit and nearly upset No. 2 seed Tennessee, losing 83-77 in overtime the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Iowa ended an up-and-down and emotionally charged season with a 23-12 record under ninth-year head coach Fran McCaffery.
You have to respect the Iowa players for not wilting under brutal circumstances and for having the fight and resolve to battle back against a quality opponent on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Sunday’s loss will sting for a while because there was so much riding on the game, but the Iowa layers showed their character.
Fran McCaffery also deserves praise because whatever he said to his players at halftime worked in the second half.
The 59-year old McCaffery has been under fire this season, but the fact that his players refused to quit in Sunday’s game is a testimony to his leadership.
Senior forward Nicholas Baer also deserves praise for what did for the team on and off the court. The former walk-on from Bettendorf was a leader in every sense of the word and his teammates were on mission to keep playing for as long as they could with win.
Unfortunately, their mission matched them against a deep and talented Tennessee squad that also could have folded when Iowa stormed back in the second half.
But the Volunteers did enough to survive and advance, which is what the NCAA Tournament is all about.
Iowa was trying to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years, and came on so close to doing it.
And this was an Iowa team that had lost five of its last six games heading into the NCAA Tournament.
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Iowa performed like that team in the first half on Sunday and was in danger of being blown out.
But as was so often the case this season, the Iowa players found a rhythm on offense and started making shots in the second half.
Tennessee then started to show signs of unraveling, but had enough in the end to withstand Iowa’s comeback.
Baer is the only player that Iowa loses to graduatioin, so there is reason for optimism, assuming the rest of the players all return next season.
Sunday's loss was sort of a microcosm of Iowa's season in that it played so up and down.
Iowa performed woefully on both ends of the floor in the first half and trailed 49-28 at the break.
Iowa shot 32.1 percent from the field in the first half, committed eight turnovers, missed five free throws and had just two assists.
Tennessee, on the other hand shot 51.4 percent from the field in the first half, made 7-of-8 free throws, had nine assists on 18 buckets and made 6-of-14 shots from 3-point range.
Iowa never led in the first half and Cook missed all five of his shots in the first half after making just 1-of-9 field-goal attempts in the victory over Cincinnati.
Iowa had shown the ability to erase large deficits during the regular season, including a 15-point deficit in the closing minutes against Northwestern.
But to say that Tennessee is a notch or two above Northwestern would be an understatement.
The Volunteers for the first time ever were ranked in the Associated Press top-10 for the entire season. They also posted three wins over AP top five teams this season (No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 4 Kentucky twice).
So to trail a team of Tennessee’s ilk by 21 points at halftime was a potential crisis to say the least.
But Iowa turned a potential crisis into an incredible comeback that fell just short of being a historical victory.