COLUMBUS, Ohio — Everything you needed to know about the most memorable near-victory in recent Iowa basketball history was present in Tyler Cook’s eyes Sunday.
The Hawkeyes’ junior star had been despondent, defiant, brilliant, valiant and back again through 45 minutes at Nationwide Arena.
What he couldn’t feel was triumphant. That’s what left Cook drained after an 83-77 overtime loss to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
His Hawkeyes were so close to being blowout losers. Then so close to becoming legends of March.
“I just felt like I was letting my guys down, honestly, in the first half,” Cook said of a Hawkeye deficit that mushroomed to 25 points.
“I decided, if I’m going to keep missing shots, I’m going to at least play my heart out — and I tried to do that. I still felt like I fell short.”
Iowa’s season, so full of “did you just see that?” moments, ended with the boldest and most bittersweet of them all. Only one team in NCAA Tournament history, the 2012 BYU Cougars, had ever erased a 25-point deficit and won. And that was in a “First Four” game, which hardly generates goosebumps.
The Hawkeyes did it against the fifth-ranked team in the nation, with a Sweet 16 berth at stake during an exclusive national broadcast window. They fought back to tie it up but never led.
Their season ends with a 23-12 record and the knowledge that, given a chance to collapse, they stood firm.
“I’m not sure I’ve been a part of something like that in my life. We’ve come back from leads before. To do it on this stage against a team like Tennessee in this kind of environment — it was incredible, honestly; just the feeling on the court, the energy, just looking in our eyes and seeing how much … guys wanted it,” Cook said.
“It’s a fistfight. They’re not going to give up. We damn sure didn’t give up.”
Cook, Iowa’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, was scoreless in the first half. He missed all five of his shots after making only 1 of 9 in Friday’s opening-round win over Cincinnati. He even limped to the bench at one point for a long stay, massaging his left knee and watching in silent disbelief as his Hawkeye team imploded around him.
Tennessee (31-5) was running and scoring and fist-bumping all over Iowa to take a 49-28 lead. A second seed with that big of an advantage on a 10 seed? Forget about it.
“I just remember watching games and, if you see somebody is down 23, you generally try to turn to the other game,” Iowa senior Nicholas Baer offered afterward. “I think a lot of people probably tuned back in once they saw the score.”
The Hawkeyes walked to their locker room and got a two-word message from coach Fran McCaffery: Be better.
That’s all they needed to hear. They challenged each other. No one spoke louder than Cook.
“He was very aggressive from the start. He was in here, talking,” Iowa guard Connor McCaffery said of Cook. “We knew he was going to be ready. We could tell he was locked in.”
Cook came out in the second half looking to hurt some feelings on the other bench. He drove for a layup; drew a foul and sank two free throws; quick-pivoted in for a dunk and foul that found him power-skipping behind the basket and roaring at God-knows-who.
Cook made that free throw, too. Then converted another post move.
He had Tennessee’s full attention then. The next time down, the Volunteers surrounded him, and he found Joe Wieskamp for a 3-pointer. After that, he bounced a backdoor pass to a cutting Baer for a layup. Cook finished his flurry with a short jump shot.
He had scored 11 points and assisted on two baskets that accounted for five more. Iowa was down just 53-44 with 13:15 left.
► Leistikow's Final Thoughts: On Tyler Cook's best decision, Nicholas Baer being 'a legend'
Cook never scored again, but his teammates continued the vibe he’d set.
They pressured Tennessee into committing fouls, making 16 of 17 free throws in the second half. The only miss? Baer raced crosscourt to leap for the rebound and fed Jordan Bohannon for a 3-pointer.
“We were attacking them and putting them in positions where they had to foul or we were going to score,” said Iowa center Luka Garza, who scored 13 points and made 5 of 6 free throws.
The Hawkeyes pressured Tennessee into committing turnovers — 11 in the second half. Iowa turned those into 17 points. There were times the Volunteers, a veteran team with all upperclassmen in the starting lineup, looked hopelessly lost, pointing fingers at each other as mistakes mounted.
“We went man after playing zone most of the first half. I think we were able to have more active hands,” Baer said.
“Everybody was fighting for it.”
Iowa, as it’s done so many times this year, got big shot after big shot. A Bohannon 3-pointer made it a 61-56 deficit with 8:15 left. Garza splashed a jumper and got fouled to bring his team within 65-61. Isaiah Moss, with the shot clock hitting a single second and standing so far in the corner he appeared to be behind the backboard, swished a 3-pointer that made it 65-64.
Bohannon, fouled on a 3-pointer, sank all three free throws to finally knot the score, at 67-67, with 2:39 left. He finished with a team-high 18 points.
Ultimately, it was up to the freshman Wieskamp to step to the free-throw line with a chance to force overtime. He calmly potted a pair with 20 seconds left. Tennessee’s final shot was off target. That brought overtime at 71-71.
“Just knock them down,” Wieskamp said he was thinking in the biggest moment of his young career. “Don’t think about it, just have confidence in yourself — all the shots that you’ve taken in your life, all the free throws that you’ve practiced throughout the whole season.”
Wieskamp made all eight of his free throws and scored 11 points.
The Hawkeyes said later they all felt momentum was theirs. Tennessee was staggering under the weight of that blown 25-point lead.
But not for long. The Volunteers regrouped. Jordan Bone nailed a long 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. Grant Williams, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, rose up for a pair of beautiful jump shots over Cook.
“We all felt really confident, coming into overtime, and (then) Grant Williams made some big plays. He’s a big-time player, and that’s what big-time players do,” Garza said. “Honestly, Tyler defended him as well as anybody could have. He was making tough fadeaway shots — those are tough shots to make, especially in those moments.”
Iowa, finally, was spent. Tennessee was moving on to face Purdue on Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Hawkeyes were heading home, falling short of the Sweet 16 for the fourth time under McCaffery.
Cook sat in front of his locker and answered question after question, trying to make sense of the most thrilling game in this tournament to date.
“You could look in everybody’s eyes in the timeouts, and everybody from Jordan to (walk-on) Austin Ash was locked in,” he said. “And to come up short like that? It hurts. It stings.”
It will for a long time. But that’s only because the Hawkeyes played themselves into a position to feel that sting.