Iowa CITY, Iowa - It was, quite simply, Iowa's best performance of the season. And, boy, did the Hawkeyes need it.
No, a 82-68 win against in-state rival Drake shouldn't inspire fans to make plans for the NCAA Tournament in March. But, when you're a program struggling to get its head above water, you savor each victory.
The Hawkeyes limped into Saturday's contest here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 5-5. Their wins came against weak competition, to say the least.
"It was a focused effort,"Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "It wasn't perfect, but it was hard-fought at both ends."
While this current Bulldogs team won't make anybody forget the school's 1969 Final FOur team, they had beaten Iowa State, who smoked Iowa last week in Ames. They had played Mississippi to a four-point game and lost to Virginia by eight.
Following a week off for finals, the Iowa players showed an extra hop in their steps. A rugged early-season run with 10 games in a short period of time wore them down.
"A lot of guys got their legs back under them," Iowa sophomore guard Devyn Marble said. "Everybody got their bodies refreshed. I think it did help to have a break."
That showed up mostly on defense and in rebounding. That wasn't the case Saturday night.
The Hawkeyes locked down Drake in the first half to build a 44-30 at the break. The Bulldogs shot a lowly 36.7 percent from the floor before the intermission, which included 3 of 12 from behind the arc. Matt Gatens sparked the effort by holding their leading scorer, Ben Simons, scoreless in the opening 20 minutes. He finished with five, almost 12 below his average.
Drake cut its deficit to nine a couple of times in the second half, but the Hawkeyes responded to each run with one of their own. That had been a rarity this year when playing quality competition.
"Give Iowa credit," Drake Coach Mark Phelps said. "They outscored us by 14 in the first half. Obviously, that was the difference in the game."
Iowa still dreams of the postseason. If that's going to happen this year, winning Saturday and the remaining two non-conference games in the coming week were a must.
"I think it was good for our confidence," Marble said."Hopefully we can get these last three heading into the Big Ten."
The Hawkeyes won without Cartwright, Basabe and Eric May playing to their potential. They're three players who would have been considered top performers coming into the season.
If Cartwright can get healthy, Basabe can avoid foul trouble and May can regain his confidence, Iowa's smaller parts are growing to the point that the Hawkeyes can take the necessary steps in improvement that's required in Year 2 of the McCaffery rebuild.
Saturday proved to be a good step forward.