IOWA CITY, Iowa _ Mike Henderson deserved to go out the way that he did.
Critics might balk at the notion that the senior point guard merited the excitement and satisfaction of scoring the final five points as his Hawkeyes knocked off rival Illinois, 60-53, Saturday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
More appropriate would have been Adam Haluska sealing up the big win that secured a Big Ten Tournament first-round bye. Haluska has enjoyed an all-American career on and off the court. I don't think the kid has ever had a pimple.
By contrast, Henderson has been a message board whipping boy throughout his career. He sat out the second semester of his freshman year. Coach Steve Alford stripped his captaincy before this season for an off-season shop lifting charge.
Maybe that's why I am so pleased that Henderson walked off the court with his head held high on Saturday. I can relate to a guy that makes mistakes and overcomes them. Nothing against Haluska, but he's an super hero in shorts and too good to be true. I only hope my son and daughter can someday come close to reaching those heights.
More likely, my children will slip up along the way. I hope they can rebound from their gaffs as well as Henderson has done. Mike is set to graduate this spring from a Big Ten university after an upbringing in Waterloo that was far from privileged.
I can say this, Henderson has been one of the most enjoyable players to cover in my 10 seasons of working with the Hawkeyes. Has he been perfect? No. Have I been flawless? Heck no. There's a tendency for sports fans to cut down athletes for every mistake while never looking in the mirror.
Henderson, who scored 11, told a funny story about his youth while giving his Senior Day speech following Saturday's game. He joked that his brother pushed him to play basketball because his mother didn't see him succeeding at the game.
"When I was young, she just saw me running up and down the court, not really knowing what I was doing," Henderson said. "I was pretty good at the piano and she thought I should play that. She wanted me to be some kind of Beethoven. I'm glad I stuck with basketball."
Though they've had a tough time admitting it through the years, the Iowa fans should be happy that Henderson reversed his verbal commitment to Iowa State and became a Hawkeye. He stepped into the starting lineup as a sophomore when Pierre Pierce was booted from the team and helped the home team to the NCAAs. He played a major role in the team winning 25 games and a Big Ten Tournament title last season.
This year got off to a rocky start when he broke his hand in the pre-season and missed the non-conference segment of the schedule. He just recently started playing consistently after a very rough start to the Big Ten campaign.
On Saturday, Henderson sent the a sold out crowd home with a memorable finish. Clinging to a 55-53 lead with 31 seconds on the clock, he drove the lane and saw an opening when Illinois closed off the kick-out pass to Haluska. Henderson slashed to the basket, tossed in a lay-up and drew the foul. He canned the free throw. Illinois missed on its next offensive trip before Henderson banged home two more from the charity stripe to seal the deal.
"I really feel for Mike because of the broken finger on his shooting hand," Alford said. "He wasn't allowed to do anything non-conference. He didn't go on our trip. There were just a lot of things that he missed out on, and it's taken a while. He's really played well. He's gotten back to guarding the way that he's capable of guarding.
"Tony (Freeman) has gotten better with Mike back. When Mike was gone, there was so much pressure on Tony. "
Freeman ripped through a pair of treys before Henderson's heroics, giving the point guard duo the team's final 11 points. Freeman also dished out five assists to one turnover and seems to be maturing in the position.
"I felt they were leaving open too much the whole night," Freeman said. "I don't like that. That's kind of disrespectful to me. I definitely made them pay for it."
Freeman's confidence has risen throughout the season after struggling early in the year. He called Henderson back in Iowa City for some advice when the team was over in the Virgin Islands for a tournament.
Henderson deserves some credit for Freeman's growth. Instead of putting himself ahead of the team, Mike continued to work with Tony for the betterment of the group. I can't imagine it was easy for him to deal with losing his starting position as a senior.
"He had a tough year with breaking his finger and missing half the season," Freeman said. "He's just done a great job staying head strong the whole year. It definitely shows the character he has. I'm proud of him.
"Even though coach took away his captain title, we wall view Mike as our captain, Mike and Adam, our two seniors."
I'm sure some people will continue to point our Mike's faults. They're entitled. He messed up, more than once.
I'll choose to applaud Mike Henderson for persevering through his mistakes, graduating and leaving Carver on a high note even if the piano thing didn't work out.