Thursday night was a must win for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
For a squad that has NCAA Tournament aspirations come March, a loss on Thursday would have virtually eliminated the Hawkeyes from that conversation. Lose to Penn State — a team that arrived in Iowa City with a winless Big Ten record — and you simply lose relevancy.
Although sluggish at times, the Hawkeyes (14-7, 3-5 Big Ten) were able to hold off the Nittany Lions (8-13, 0-9) in the second half and win, 76-67, in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
So, Iowa succeeded at remaining relevant. Even if it is only a whisper.
“We needed the win,” said Aaron White, who had 27 points. “Tough game at Purdue [on Jan. 27] we thought we should have had. We’re at the point now, about 10 games left, where we need to put something together … not the prettiest game ever, but a win is a win.”
Penn State didn’t shy away from being aggressive early on. Head coach Pat Chambers’ team led 10-3 at the first TV timeout. They unraveled from there, though. The Hawkeyes went on a 14-0 run and led 34-26 at halftime.
The Nittany Lions battled back in the second half — at one stage they were down just three — but Iowa’s depth and a couple of decent runs sealed the victory.
Junior Melsahn Basabe was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time this season with freshman Anthony Clemmons on the bench, and the move paid off for head coach Fran McCaffery. Basabe posted a double-double: 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“He’s been very efficient,” McCaffery said of Basabe. “He makes his free throws, he sticks his nose in the glass, gives you a low-post presence, and defensively he’s just so far ahead where he used to be.
“What you’re seeing is a guy, as a result of that, has more confidence in himself. Which is great.”
There are still questions to be answered for the Hawkeyes. At this point last season, McCaffery’s squad had recorded wins against Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Consistency has been an issue, as there have been countless hot-cold spurts from players.
Prime example is Mike Gesell. The freshman point guard had the game of his career just four days ago at Purdue (18 points, 4 rebounds), but didn’t score any points and had three turnovers against Penn State.
RPI is a determining factor in terms of postseason play — Iowa is currently No. 84 in that category; 68 teams make the NCAA tourney.
Iowa’s next three contests are at Minnesota, at Wisconsin, and home against Northwestern. Perhaps the most crucial three-game stretch of this season. If the Hawkeyes want to reach the Big Dance this spring, all of these games are crucial.
“We have to go into these games with a warrior mentality, and not miss a beat,” Basabe said. “We have to have the confidence that we can win these games.
“It’s a battle on so many levels in this conference. Tonight proved that. You got to be ready for it.”