Howe: Hawkeyes End on High Note

Iowa capped a regular-season surge Saturday with a 69-52 win against Northwestern at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The run reversed a collapse last season and was another step forward for a program on the rise. HI Publisher Rob Howe writes about a legacy that keeps building.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa players understood the situation. They'd been through it just last year.

The Hawkeyes said confidently that it wouldn't happen again. Another free-fall wasn't an option.

Saying it is one thing. Doing it is another.

During the last three weeks, actions not only spoke louder than words, they screamed through outside doubt. Instead of skidding to the finish line, Saturday's 69-52 win against Northwestern represented their sixth win in a row, the longest Big Ten run at the school since 1986-87.

On Feb. 15, Iowa sat at a crossroads following an overtime loss at Northwestern. The Hawkeyes had hit another valley in what had been an up-and-down season. The cloud of losing seven of their last eight outings a year ago moved back over them.

The players held a meeting without the coaches. They couldn't change what happened last year, but this team's fate was in their hands.

Saturday's performance greatly illustrated the progress. Three weeks ago, Northwestern came at the Hawkeyes until they folded. The Wildcats looked the same Saturday, refusing to give up despite a raucous enemy crowd and absorbing a barrage of dunks. This time, however, Iowa responded in kind every time.

No, Iowa didn't run through murders' row in winning the last half dozen games. Rutgers, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern own a combined 25-63 conference mark as of Saturday afternoon. That shouldn't diminish what this team did in finishing 12-6.

The Big Ten behind champion Wisconsin was defined by parity this season and the Hawkeyes emerged from the pack. They won three road games in the final six to finish in the Top 5 of a 14-team league. That's an impressive accomplishment.

In the big picture, which is most important, Iowa stepped forward as a program for a fifth year in a row under Coach Fran McCaffery. The Hawkeyes were 10-22 overall and 3-12 in conference the season before he arrived.

None of this is to say that the program has arrived. McCaffery and his players would be the first to say that there's unfinished business. Last year's first-round exits in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments still burn.

While there are no guarantees, Iowa enters next week's conference tournament with momentum and confidence. It also might enjoy a double bye depending on outcomes of other games.

Saturday belonged to Iowa seniors Aaron White (25 points, eight rebounds), Gabe Olaseni, Josh Oglesby and Kyle Denning. Past captains like Devyn Marble, Eric May, Matt Gatens and Jarryd Cole added bricks to this reclamation project.

"It's such an incredible journey this season, but also from the minute they got here," McCaffery said of this year's seniors.

White started Saturday's game with a pair of three-pointers in a game Iowa led wire to wire. He moved into second place on Iowa's all-time scoring list. He said Thursday that statistics take a backseat to winning.

A high school senior at the time, White sat in a half-empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena four years ago watching Minnesota maul the Hawkeyes. Saturday, he left the court to a sell-out crowd cheering wildly.

"This will always be one of the best days I've had in my life," White said. "It's very special to me and I'm so appreciative of so many people. I'll let this soak in for a little bit. We had a good year to end it like we have. But at the same time, we're going to be ready for the postseason."

Again, nothing is a given, but Iowa fans can take solace in knowing White and his teammates want to add to their legacy. They'll try to become the first at the school to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2001.

It's a team that relies heavily on chemistry and unselfishness. It can be argued that the sum is greater than its parts.

"This team is as together as any team I've been around," McCaffery said.

The players deserve the credit. They transfer their everyday friendship into on-court cohesiveness. McCaffery is the constant, however, and is responsible for the culture by assembling this group.

"It's a great experience for our guys to play against those older guys (at Iowa) and know that they kind of were where were and they've developed and they've worked. It's definitely something I look to when I look at Fran is how he's built the program as a model for what I'm trying to do at Northwestern," Wildcat Coach Chris Collins said.

It's good to have goals. The Hawkeyes are finally realizing some of theirs.

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