Hawks Fight, Fall Short at Michigan State

More talented Iowa teams than this year's squad have gone to East Lansing, Michigan and have come away with their tails tucked between their legs; before Wednesday's game, Iowa had lost its last eight games at Michigan State by an average of 20.1 points per game. This year's Iowa team was very shorthanded heading into this contest, and fought until the end, finally losing 62-54.

In a season that has seen as much adversity and attrition as the 2008-2009 Iowa men's basketball team has faced, moral victories count for something.


They might not matter to the coaches and players, but for you that have followed Iowa basketball over the past several decades, you have seen far more talented Iowa teams travel to East Lansing and get their doors blown off.


The injury ridden yet still more experienced 2000-2001 Iowa team, the one that won the Big Ten tournament by winning four games in four days, lost there by 24 points.  Steve Alford's last two trips to the Breslin Center saw the Hawks lose by more than 30 points.


That building has been a house of horrors for a lot of teams, and some folks assumed that this year's Iowa basketball squad, down to just six and a half players in Todd Lickliter's rotation, was going to have a tough time keeping the losing margin under the 16 point spread that Vegas set for this contest.


Someone forgot to tell that to Iowa, as they scrapped and fought until the final horn, eventually falling 62-54 against the #9 ranked team in the nation.


The Hawks had their sights set on pulling off a stunning upset, as they trailed 48-43 with just under eight minutes remaining, but MSU went inside, where they had a sizeable advantage, both literally and figuratively. 


Big men Goran Suton and Delvin Roe went to the line on three straight Spartan possessions, making all six of their free throw attempts to widen the lead to 53-43 with 5:56 to play.  Those trips to the line were bracketed around two Iowa turnovers, and the Hawks would never get any closer than eight points after that point.


Iowa guard Jake Kelly, playing his third consecutive game at the point guard position due to Jeff Peterson's absence due to a hamstring injury, turned in another impressive performance.  The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week had 20 points and five rebounds on the night, his third straight game scoring at least 19 points in as many games at the point.  He also had a team high six turnovers against Michigan State's relentless 94-foot pressure.


What was just as impressive was the defense that Kelly played on Michigan State's leading scorer Kalin Lucas, who was held to just four points, better than 10 below his season average.  Lucas came into this game in the midst of the Big Ten MVP conversation, and Kelly once again drew the toughest perimeter defensive assignment for Iowa, something he has been given nearly every time out this year.  In Kelly's last four games, he has averaged 19.75 points, 5.5 rebounds and four assists.  His end of the year state line is reminiscent of the performance that Cyrus Tate put up over the final 12 games of last season.


To top it off, Kelly has averaged 39.75 minutes per game over the past four games, or basically just 60 seconds shy of averaging a complete game, each time out.  He went the distance again on Wednesday night, as Peterson and guard Jermaine Davis were both unavailable.  Fellow guards Devan Balwinkel and Matt Gatens also played the entire game for the second contest in a row, but they were not as effective against Michigan State's perimeter defense as they were against Michigan on Sunday; Balwinkel scored just three points while hitting just one of six from three point range, while Gatens scored nine on three of six shooting from the floor.  Aaron Fuller added 10 points on the night, while starter Jarryd Cole scored just five, as he was saddled with three fouls in the first half and played just 23 minutes.  Cyrus Tate logged 17 minutes and scored seven points to go along with three rebounds.


The Hawkeyes committed 16 turnovers on the night, but forced Michigan State into 14 giveaways.  The big difference in the game was on the backboards;  MSU outrebounded Iowa 33-19, but 12 to 2 on the offensive glass.  That led to a 13-5 advantage in second chance points for the Spartans, which was the exact margin of victory.  MSU made just 14 of 20 free throws, while Iowa his 12 of 13 at the charity stripe.


After Iowa's win against Michigan on Sunday, I wrote that I wished the trip to East Lansing was already in the books and out of the way, because I was fearful that the positive momentum Iowa had built in its close loss at home to a ranked Purdue team and the win against Michigan could be wiped out with a possible demoralizing loss to the Spartans. 


Yet Iowa did not wilt under the most relentless end to end pressure they will face all season, and the shorthanded bunch of Hawkeyes fought back and punched the Spartans in the nose, keeping the outcome in doubt until the final minutes.


There is no column for close losses or moral victories, and I am certain the players will have none of it.  But they should be proud of the effort they are giving, and the steps they are taking right now will only serve them well come next season, when the roster is healthy and more experienced.


Next up for Iowa is a road game at Northwestern.  The Wildcats are coming off of a 22 point win at Indiana's Assembly Hall, a building they had never won in.  Repeat, never.  The Wildcats have been very tough to beat at home this year, knocking off several league foes (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State) and scaring several more in close losses (by two vs Purdue, by 1 to Illinois, where they squandered late double-digit leads in both games and by three in overtime against Michigan.)

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