INDIANAPOLIS - If Jeff Horner's season has resembled a roller coaster ride, the senior guard clicked up to the highest peak with his arms high in the air Friday evening in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals at Canseco Field house.
Horner delivered his best performance of the year when his team needed it most. The Mason City native scored 26 points to go with six assists and six rebounds. He looked like the best player on the floor, a status he has rarely enjoyed during an injury-plagued season.
Vincent Grier received a lot of credit for keeping the Gophers in the game with highlight reel dunks and contortionist moves to the basket en route to 29 points. He deserved the praise. But when push came to shove late in the game, he forced the issue and Horner continued his fabulous flow by finding open teammates when double-teamed.
Grier needed 24 shots to reach his point total, while Horner notched his sum with 8 of 13 field goal shooting, including 6 of 9 from behind the arc. The Iowa guard drew extra defensive attention after the break and found teammates, handing out four assists and grabbing five rebounds in the final 20 minutes.
With first-team all-conference power forward Greg Brunner nursing a sore ankle and other teammates fighting nerves, Horner sensed his services would be greatly needed on this night.
"Sometimes you just feel it in warm-ups," Iowa's all-time assist and 3-point leader said. "You try to get guys going, but sometimes they just don't respond. It happens to everybody. It's happened to me plenty of times this year where Adam (Haluska) and Bru had to pick me up. "Erek Hansen had to pick us up tonight (in the second half). That kind of stuff happens. I kind of had to take it upon myself to go out and score a little bit. In the second half, I found my teammates a lot."
When Minnesota jumped off of screens to double team Horner on curl patterns, he found Brunner and Hansen alone underneath the hoop. Brunner scored 14 of his 16 points after the intermission.
"Every time Grier would make a shot and get it close, Jeff would take it upon himself to come back down and make a shot and drill it just to lift our team back up," Hansen said. "He was doing that the whole game. He was just on fire. When he wasn't open, he was just finding those extra men. Anytime you have the defensive team having to focus on just one guy, it leaves a lot of other people open. He was doing a great job of that."
With the game appearing to slip away midway through the second half, Horner refused to let his team succumb to the pesky Golden Gophers. After Grier knocked in another acrobatic shot to give his team a 45-41 lead, Horner drained two free throws before calmly ripping a three from out top to put Iowa back ahead by one. That sent the Hawkeyes on a decisive 17-4 run that all but ended the upset dreams of Minnesota.
Horner carried the team on his back, a scene we've seen in the past in Maui and other locations but far too few times in a season that saw him miss most of December with a knee injury, lug around a leg brace for the majority of January and then suffer bruised ribs and various other battle scars one on top of the other.
"He's starting to get real comfortable again," Hansen said. "Through the whole stretch with his knee, he was really down on himself. As soon as he got better, he picked himself up and got more and more comfortable. I know any time we've ever got into any type of tournament play that's when he's always his best. That's when he's really challenging himself to really come out and dominate against other teams."
During a career that could easily have been worked into a daytime story line on The Young and the Restless, up and downs, twists and turns, don't faze Horner anymore. With some of his teammates looking through saucer eyes Friday night, Mr. Cool calmed everybody's anxiety.
"It's very important (when Horner plays well) because it's a domino effect," Hawkeye Guard Mike Henderson said. "When Jeff comes out and struggles, it kind of affects our team. When he's not playing as well we suffer."
Horner inspired his teammates late in the game with his desire to try slowing Grier defensively, an area not considered to be one of the Iowa senior's strongest suits.
"I said, "Hey, just let me take him for a couple of possessions and just see what happens,"" Horner said. "I just tried to deny him the ball. He scored a couple of buckets on me. He's tough. When he gets going, he's impossible to stop. I told Adam to go back on him at the end of the game because I was dead tired."
Fans have leveled some attacks on Horner throughout his career, even on our beloved HN.com message boards. However, it was tough to find fault with his play Friday or in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin when he scored 22 points and hauled in seven boards.
"I definitely think he's coming back into his groove," Henderson said. "Sometimes he'll have good shooting nights here and there, but he was really who Jeff Horner is tonight with 27-6-6. He's almost a triple-double guy. He's a 6-2 guy doing all that."
Sometimes Horner deserves criticism for bad decision making, but rarely can he be called out for his effort and desire. And he's played through injuries, which may have sidelined others with lesser drive. Heck, this kid played with a broken foot as a freshman.
"It's been a tough year," he admitted as he slumped down in the Iowa locker room. "It seems like whenever I get it going, I get hurt. It's not been very fun. But you deal with it. We made it through that stuff. Now, we're just moving on from it."
Friday, fans witnessed what a relatively healthy Horner can achieve. He moved without the ball like Baryshnikov in shorts, precisely curling and cutting off screens.
"I feel pretty good, but I don't want to jinx myself for (Saturday)," Horner said. "This is a long tournament. Fortunately, I had a very good game (Friday) shooting the basketball. We'll see what happens (Saturday)."
About the only thing Horner failed to accomplish Friday night was setting the Big Ten Tournament record for three-point shooting in a game. His six treys tied the mark.
"It did?" Horner asked in amazement. He then joked, "If I would have known that I would have got one more."
"It's an honor, but my teammates found me in key situations. I had the hot hand, but tomorrow it could be someone else."
If someone else does grab the spotlight (Saturday), he should thank Horner. He allowed for there to be a tomorrow.
TIP-INS: Iowa Associate Head Coach Craig Neal sported a gray pin striped suit with a pink shirt and pink and purple necktie. The Hawkeye fans behind the team's bench gave him a bit of a hard time…When Coach Alford pulled Hansen in the first few minutes, he called to Doug Thomas to "give me energy" before sending him in for his starting center. Thomas responded with three quick boards…Coach Neal addressed some of his big guys on the bench coming out of a timeout. He told them that Minnesota's Spencer Tollackson delivered a cheap shot on Hawkeye point guard Jeff Horner on a previous deadball…After Brunner allowed a put-back basket late in the first half, Alford met his senior coming off the floor, grabbed the front of his jersey and supplied him with an earful…Iowa slipped briefly into a 2-3 zone late in the first half, but Adam Boone knocked down an open trey to put an end to that experiment…The Hawkeyes shot 44 percent from the floor in the opening half thanks to Horner's 5 for 8 (4-5 on threes) performance. Take those numbers out, and the Black and Gold connected on just 6 for 17…Brunner looked slowed by his injured ankle and went to the locker room with two points and no rebounds at the intermission…Thomas contributed four points and four boards in 12 first-half minutes…Iowa was outrebounded 21-13 in the opening half, including 10-3 on the offensive glass…Hansen picked up his third foul with 18:05 remaining in regulation and was replaced by Thomas. Hansen argued with officials and apparently was close to picking up a technical. As he sat on the bench, Alford told him "A technical and you're done. Just get off the floor. I don't need the comments."…Alford laid into Haluska around the 12:00 minute mark after replacing him with Carlton Reed. The coach screamed for him to stop hanging his head after getting beat by Grier and to move onto the next play. A few minutes later, Alford yelled at Haluska "Are you ready now?" The guard nodded his head and went back in for Reed. A few minutes later, Haluska connected on a short bank shot, his first points since early in the game…Former Iowa guard Ronnie Lester sat in the stands for the day's game in his role as Los Angeles Lakers scout…