IOWA CITY, Iowa - Matt Gatens crawled on the ground scrambling for a loose ball with Northwestern star Kevin Coble. The Iowa freshman yanked the ball away and wisely called a timeout. As he rose to his feet, the Hawkeye guard slammed the ball to the court and screamed with satisfaction.
It represented only one play in a game full of important moments Saturday, but it said everything. Losing to last-place Indiana three days earlier could have crippled Gatens and his teammates. Instead, they played like they were chasing a championship.
After losing four in a row and seven of eight, Iowa pulled out a 56-51 victory against the Wildcats at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"It's been a tough stretch and this group has persevered," Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, said. "They played with great spirit. I'm not going to minimize what our home crowd means.
"This crowd showed up to support a group of guys that had been playing hard and not been rewarded. It was instrumental in us playing with the kind of spirit we needed to complete this game. I can't imagine, if you're walking out of here a Hawkeye fan, being disappointed with this group."
An announced crowd of 12,555 filled into Carver-Hawkeye Arena to watch Iowa improve to 13-11 on the season, including 3-8 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats fell to 13-8 and 4-6. They had come into the game having won four of their last five.
Iowa players took a victory lap around the Carver court, shaking hands with fans as they headed to the locker room. It was the first night of the promotion where fans could by tickets for $10 each (they're regularly $27).
It seemed a long way from Wednesday when the Hawkeyes became Indiana's first victory in the Big Ten. A loss to Northwestern at home on Saturday could have been devastating.
"It's a huge win for us and this program," Gatens said. "Everybody has just kind of been down lately. It was a long flight home (from Indiana), but we just went straight to Northwestern preparation. I think we did a great job of bouncing back from a tough loss. We have to keep doing that the rest of the season."
Jeff Peterson led the Hawkeyes in scoring with 16, while adding five assists (six turnovers), four rebounds and four steals. He and Gatens (13 points) combined to hit 8 of 8 free throws (each making 4) in the final :28 and were 11 of 12 for the game.
"Every trip he had to make a decision," Lickliter said of Peterson. "Hey, would I like for him to never turn it over? Sure. You'd like everybody to. But it's not realistic. He found guys. He gave us poise. He defended well.
"I've been really proud of the way Jeff plays."
Cyrus Tate (2 points, five rebounds, 13 minutes) returned to the starting lineup after missing the last seven games with a high ankle sprain. The senior co-captain saw his last action on Jan. 8 against Minnesota. David Palmer (who didn't play for the first time in seven games, coach's decision) and Jarryd Cole both had started in his place.
"It's about time," Tate said. "Sitting out the last seven games, it's crazy. I've been itching to get out there. It just feels good to come out and get a few minutes in. Just getting back in that atmosphere again is a great feeling.
"The ankle feels fine. The swelling has gone down a whole lot. At the same time, I still have some pain. The doctors have me wearing a brace. As much as I don't want to wear it, they told me that I should wear it just in case."
Tate said he hopes to pick up his minutes with each passing game. Trainers limited him to about seven minutes a half on Saturday.
"I was getting a little irritated about that seven-minutes-a-half-thing," the ultra competitive Tate said. "I felt fine. They said no. It was my word against theirs. It's my body. It's crazy, but they're just looking out for me."
Lickliter and his staff decided to start Tate right before the game. Tate said later that he was uncomfortable with the move because Cole had played well in his absence. But the coaches had good reason to open up the game with their veteran.
"I kept going back and forth, but I thought if he warms up I'm not sure I want him sitting over there and then putting him in," Lickliter said. "I also thought that it might be fun to introduce him. And it was. It was neat. It's nice that somebody who cares as much as he does was shown appreciation."
Devan Bawinkle opened with the first team for the first time in an Iowa uniform. He took the place of Jermain Davis in the starting lineup, while Tate was in there for Cole.
Iowa went scoreless for the first five minutes of the second half. After leading by as much as 11 in the first half, Northwestern held a 25-24 lead with 16:41 to play in the game.
Iowa responded with a spurt that saw it take a 40-33 lead on two Tate free throws with 6:55 remaining on the clock. The Wildcats clawed back with a 10-3 run to tie it at 43-43 with 3:08 to play in the game.
Northwestern grabbed a 46-45 lead on a three-point play by Luka Mirkovic at the 1:29 mark. Bawinkle drained a trey on Iowa's next trip to give the home team a 48-46 lead with 1:05 left in regulation.
The Wildcats' Kevin Coble missed a lean-in pull-up, but the visitors grabbed the offensive rebound. After a timeout, Peterson stripped Michael Thompson of the ball with :29 on the clock before being fouled. The sophomore knocked down both foul shots with a 50-46 Iowa advantage.
Northwestern got a quick lay-up from Mirkovic to pull within two points of the lead and then fouled Gatens after the inbound play. The Iowa City native made both foul shots to give his team a 52-48 lead. After another visitor miss, Gatens hit two more free throws for a six-point Iowa lead.
Jeremy Nash connected on a trey to trim the home team advantage to 54-51 with :08 remaining. Following a visitor timeout, Peterson was fouled and made two foul shots to push his squad's lead to five points with five ticks to play in the game. It sealed the much-needed victory.
Bawinkle showed his worth from the opening tip, hitting two of three trey attempts in the games first 4:30. The junior had been 5 of his last 22 from beyond the arc coming into the night, a span covering of nine games.
"The corner is open against the 1-3-1, so I knew I'd get some good looks tonight," said Bawinkle, who finished 3 of 9 from three. He didn't find out until five minutes before the game that he was starting. "I was surprised and excited and I wanted to go out there and prove that coach made the right decision in letting me start."
Iowa came out blazing as a team from deep. The home team hit six treys in the game's first eight minutes to grab a 18-7 lead.
The Hawkeyes then went into what seems like an inevitable nightly scoring drought. They went with a point for seven minutes, until Kelly connected on a three-pointer with 5:10 to play before halftime. By that time, the score was 21-15, and Iowa went to the locker room with a 24-21 advantage.
Gatens was limited to 10 minutes in the opening half after picking up his third foul. Iowa shot attempted just three two-point shots without making any. The Wildcats were 2 of 7 from two. The Hawkeyes shot 7 of 17 from three, while Northwestern was 4 of 14.
"It just feels so good to win," Bawinkle said. "We focus so much in practice on winning. We wanted to win so bad, and a lot of wins hadn't come around lately. We played really hard tonight and focused on winning."
Iowa next takes the floor on Wednesday night in Madison against Wisconsin.