IOWA CITY, Iowa - A pair of players Thad Matta knows well sank his Ohio State team Saturday. One guy the Buckeye coach wanted. The other he did not.
Aaron White and Adam Woodbury delivered an afternoon of electrifying plays in leading Iowa to a 76-67 victory. The Hawkeyes won for the fifth time in six games and might be gelling at the right time in a wide open Big Ten.
Of course, that looked to be happening at this time a year ago before the bottom fell out. Time will tell of this team falls victim to the same fate.
Saturday proved to be about Iowa holding off the Buckeyes time and again down the stretch, something it's struggled with this winter. Woodbury, who Matta tried to pull out of Iowa, and White, who he had no interest keeping in Ohio, ended numerous runs with key contributions.
From White, the team's captain and leading scorer, it's expected. He's a two-time, All-Big Ten selection. Coach Fran McCaffery still is thankful for his 22 points, six rebounds and three steals on Saturday, to be sure.
Woodbury, on the other hand, normally does the grunt work. Critics often take aim at the junior center from Sioux City for not scoring more. Nonsense. An appreciation for Woodbury is overdue.
Perhaps Saturday's 13-point, 10-rebound performance opens some eyes of people who miss what he supplies nightly. The seven-footer defends, screens, passes and hustles, the dirty stuff successful teams cherish. The physical and mental toughness he gives also enriches the Hawkeyes and largely goes unnoticed.
"I'm telling you what, he played like an experienced guy should, a guy that understands how to play," McCaffery said. "I've told you all along, this guy has got unbelievable understanding of the game. He's one of the most cerebral guys I've ever had, and he impacts the game that way."
All of this is not to imply that Woodbury has arrived and is All-Big Ten caliber…yet. He's still working on consistency in scoring the basketball. In fairness, he's, at best, the third option in Iowa's offense.
Woodbury chips in without the basketball - a lot. It sounds cliche and it's hard to grasp. It's easier to pick on his deficiencies than recognize his strengths.
Detractors focus on his size and on him being the most highly-pursued recruit on the roster. If Ohio State and North Carolina offered him scholarships, he should be a dominant scorer and provide highlight reel dunks.
In that respect, Woodbury is more old school and less SportsCenter generation. He's always done things coaches pull their hair out trying to teach other players. He understands things like spacing the floor, hedging on defense and maintaining a screen until it's actually stopped the defender.
Woodbury's offensive game continues evolving while he's providing everything else. He shoots 61 percent from the foul line, which makes nobody forget Rick Barry, but is light years ahead of where he was in high school. He is effective shooting face-up jumpers to 17 feet from numerous spots on the court and various hooks over defenders in the post, all moves mostly developed in his two and a half years of college.
These advancements have happened thanks to a strong work ethic. He arrived here as a really good basketball player who, if he could mature on offense, might be special.
Woodbury dominated Ohio State Center Amir Williams Saturday. The Buckeye big man and McDonald's All-American from Detroit Country Day School scored two points, grabbed just three rebounds and picked up four fouls in 23 minutes.
After the Hawkeyes built a 17-point lead with about 12 minutes left in the game, Ohio State reduced it to nine at the 8:36 mark. The Buckeyes, who lost to Iowa, 71-65, at home on Dec. 30, looked poised to cut further into that deficit.
From that point, Woodbury asserted himself on the offensive end. He scored his team's next two baskets to counter a still-charging Ohio State squad. A free throw by the Hawkeye big man pushed his team back ahead, 65-54, with 6:29 on the clock.
OSU's D'Angelo Williams then splashed in a three-pointer and White followed by hitting one of two free throws. WIth a chance to cut the home team lead to seven, Woodbury blocked Williams' shot. After Hawkeye sophomore Peter Jok missed a lay-up, the visitors trimmed Iowa's lead to 66-59 with 5:21 left in regulation.
Once again, Woodbury stepped forward for his team, grabbing an offensive rebound and hitting a jumper to increase the lead to nine. Resilient OSU countered with a trey from Shannon Scott to reduce the Hawkeye advantage to 68-62 with 4:46 to play.
White boosted it back to a seven-point edge with one of two foul shots. Russell missed a three with Woodbury grabbing the defensive board. Iowa's Mike Gesell then misfired from behind the arc but Woodbury crashed the lane hard, wrestled the ball away from a few Buckeyes and called timeout.
The sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena erupted in appreciation of Woodbury's determination. Coming out of the timeout, White was fouled and sank both free throw tries. After an OSU miss, Woodbury assisted on a White lay-up and Iowa led 73-62 with 2:09 remaining. The Buckeyes' day was done.
Woodbury already was impacting the game without his offensive contributions, silencing Williams and adding his usual intangibles with fellow Hawkeye post Gabe Olaseni in foul trouble. With the uplifting offense, he dominated and perhaps offered a glimpse of what the future holds.
"He had a tremendous game," Matta said. "He had a couple of big buckets at the end of shot clocks; offensive rebound, called time out; just big big-time plays."
Gesell grew up with Woodbury, playing AAU with him and high school basketball against him. He's gained an appreciation for his good friend.
"Woody, you know, he was tremendous," Gesell said. "He always does the things that don't show up in the box score. Tonight, he was scoring, playing tremendous defense. He's just a leader out there on the floor. He brings us the energy diving on the floor."
When you're unselfish and care more about winning than headlines, critics often inflict little harm. That's the case with the big man from Western Iowa, who following Saturday's game wanted to talk about White's contributions than his own.
"That's Whitey for you, getting out in transition, dunking on people, that's who he is," Woodbury said. "He's probably one of the biggest reasons why we won this game."
Woodbury could have said the same for himself.