By Brendan Stiles
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Three weeks ago, the thought of Iowa winning its rematch against Indiana appeared unlikely. The Hoosiers had dropped 103 points on the Hawkeyes and head coach Fran McCaffery found himself questioning his team’s toughness.
On Sunday, a much different story was written and what seemed unlikely before became reality, as Iowa not only beat No. 18 Indiana 78-66 inside a raucous Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but made it look smooth for most of 40 minutes. In doing so, the Hawkeyes now sit at 6-8 in the Big Ten, which is currently tied for seventh place with Northwestern. Iowa is also 14-13 overall with the victory, its third over a top 25 team this season.
“If we have our confidence up and stick to our game plan, we can play with anyone in the country,” freshman forward Aaron White said.
Paving the way for the Hawkeyes on this night was senior guard Matt Gatens. Coming off a 21-point performance three days earlier against Penn State, the Iowa City native took over and finished with a new career-high 30 points on Sunday, eclipsing his previous career-high of 27 points against North Carolina A&T back on Nov. 14.
“He has just been playing as well, if not better, than anybody in this league,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “Coaching is easy when you can start running some clock, and then run something for him.
“We just kept going to him a different way, and he just kept ringing the bell.”
At the game’s start, it appeared things would pick up where they left off at Assembly Hall three weeks ago, as Indiana center Cody Zeller scored five points in the first 40 seconds. But after falling behind 8-4, Iowa proceeded to go on an 10-0 run to move ahead 14-8.
The Hoosiers would get to within 16-15 before things really started picking up in the Hawkeyes’ favor. With sophomore forward Zach McCabe in early foul trouble, sophomore forward Melsahn Basabe was able to come in and provide Iowa with much-needed energy at both ends of the floor.
Basabe finished the evening with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots. The rejections were what stood out most to both McCaffery and Basabe.
“That’s something to be proud of because not a lot of people can call themselves shot-blockers,” Basabe said. “Coach McCaffery has been really stressing that to me, that I need to affect the areas that I’m really good at, and the scoring will come.”
The Hawkeyes would take a commanding 37-26 lead with them into halftime, partially due to the play it received off the bench. Being without the services of both senior guard Bryce Cartwright and junior forward Eric May due to ankle and back injuries respectively, McCaffery did some tinkering with rotations.
In the first half, he threw three bigs — senior Andrew Brommer, freshman Gabe Olaseni and redshirt freshman Darius Stokes — out on the court together along with Gatens and sophomore guard Devyn Marble. Also getting some playing time in the first half was sophomore guard Branden Stubbs.
One key stat proved to be rebounding, where the Hawkeyes held a 41-35 edge after Indiana dominated the glass in the previous meeting three weeks ago.
“It’s a line-up that has great size,” McCaffery said of having Brommer, Olaseni and Stokes on the court together. “We can compete in the post, we can compete on the glass, and that’s what we did, so whereas it’s not necessarily as good offensively, it can actually be even better defensively.”
In the second half, Iowa would build a 19-point cushion following a putback slam by Brommer that gave the Hawkeyes a 52-33 lead. Indiana proceeded to go on a 9-0 run to trim its deficit down to 10 points.
Coming out of the under-8 timeout, Gatens put the Hawkeyes on his back. He sank four straight 3-point attempts and five in the second half en route to his 30-point evening. With each 3-pointer swishing through the hoop, Iowa continued to build its lead up enough to where Indiana simply couldn’t catch up.
“I knew we were probably going to run plays that were coming to me, and I knew I had to step up and knock some shots down,” Gatens said. “We needed to have an answer for what they were doing.
“We kind of got comfortable with the lead and we stopped attacking. Coach believed in me and called a couple of plays. It felt good.”
The Hawkeyes returns to action on Feb. 23 with another home game against No. 15 Wisconsin, who is coming off a 65-55 win over Penn State on Sunday. Iowa won the first meeting between the two teams 72-65 back on Dec. 31 at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis. Tip-off from Carver-Hawkeye Arena is scheduled for 8 p.m. Central, with the game airing nationally on ESPN2.