INDIANAPOLIS - Iowa underclassmen Devyn Marble and Aaron White spoke about winning for the seniors. If that provided needed motivation to beat rival Illinois here on Thursday, they should have bottled it.
The Hawkeyes and their fans should feel good about ending a seven-game losing streak against Illinois for what it meant to seniors like Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright. The 64-61 win meant a lot more than extending the tournament for the guys playing in this tournament for the last time.
Iowa could benefit greatly from winning a game in this event as it relates to the future of the program. It hadn't tasted victory in the Big Ten Tournament since 2006. The last four seasons represented the worst stretch in Hawkeye basketball history.
Win or lose to Michigan State on Friday, the Hawkeyes took another step forward as a program. A loss would have left more unfinished business out there for a program rebuilding. Now, they crossed something off the to-do list with much of the team returning next season.
Iowa has been able to accomplish bridging the gap between the struggling past and the hope of the future. It's come through a unified effort.
There's no need to point fingers or name names, but that's been missing from Iowa basketball. That's why things have stagnated instead of turning around.
Iowa trailed by seven points six minutes into the second half. There was no panic. Their focus persisted and resiliency showed up.
"We believed the whole time we were going to win that game," Aaron White said. "It's such a family atmosphere. Our guys are just really close and we play for each other.
"We're going to fight and hopefully win a couple more and surprise some people."
That feeling hasn't prevailed here at this event for much of the last five years. Steve Alford limped to the finish of his seven-year run as speculation swirled about him leaving for New Mexico in '07. Palpable rumors filled the air as Todd Lickliter's run came to a close shortly after a first-round exit three years later.
For the first time in his Iowa career, Gatens wore a home jersey at the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes had been the lower seed in his previous trips.
"It feels good to be the better seed and it feels great to get the win," Gatens said. "But we can't celebrate too long. We have to get in the film room and prepare for a really good team in Michigan State."
It's that mentality that makes Gatens a strong leader off the floor. Add it to his ability on the court and you have the conductor of the train cruising to brighter days.
Illinois Center Meyers Leonard, this year's version of Andy Kaufmann - Hawkeye killer, converted a jumper to put the Illini ahead 44-37 with 14:14 remaining in the second half. Iowa's losing streak in the event looked like it might be extended.
Gatens would not allow it. He buried a trey before stealing a pass leading to his slam dunk. It sent Iowa on a 19-8 run during the next eight minutes.
"That was huge for us," White said. "You need something to really spark your momentum and that was it. We just kind of rolled from there. We got confidence on the defensive end and came around on the offensive end."
The rest of the Hawkeyes followed Gatens' lead. Cartwright controlled the offense from the point, something he's struggled to do this season because of injuries. Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe toughened up against Leonard.
The Illini sophomore destroyed the Hawkeyes in Champaign a few weeks ago with 22 points and 14 rebounds. He scored 18 in the first 30 minutes on Thursday. Then, he didn't score again.
"In the beginning, he got inside of us a bit more. He was able to get lobs," McCabe said of the seven-footer. "We realized we had to be tougher and not let him get the ball. I think we all did that. Mel did a good job and Andrew (Brommer). That really helped our energy in the second half."
The Hawkeyes (17-15) missed free throws down the stretch that allowed Illinois to cut their lead to 62-61 with :16 left in regulation. Instead of folding like it had time and time again in recent years, Iowa received a few favorable bounces and Gatens calmly sank two free throws to seal the victory.
The gorilla came off of the Hawkeyes' back. Some demons were exorcised.
Now, Iowa is playing with house money. Nobody will expect it to beat the mighty Spartans, who wasted Iowa, 95-61, Jan. 10 in East Lansing.
"We have a task ahead of us, but that's what you want and why you play at this level," Basabe said. "It's not like we don't have the capability to beat them. We just have to dig in and really play hard. We have to take it to another level."
Every team is different, but it's feeling a little like past conference tournament runs by the Hawkeyes. MSU Coach Tom Izzo probably won't sleep well tonight. Iowa is a dangerous team - emphasis on team.