Leistikow: Hawkeyes haven't stopped fighting, believing

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s young basketball team served up a reminder Tuesday night, that even though it’s a few ZIP codes away from the NCAA Tournament bubble, there’s still a lot to play for.

What was most impressive about the Hawkeyes’ 96-90 overtime victory against Indiana at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was the number of times they fought back from adversity.

Down 9-0 and 17-4, then rallied it to tie it at 26 … then quickly fell behind by seven.

Tied it again at 33. Fell behind by seven again.

Tied it at 55. Fell behind by NINE.

Even after finally taking their first lead with 2 minutes, 13 seconds left in regulation, they had to regroup and win the next five more minutes.

Iowa's Nicholas Baer, right, celebrates his putback dunk with freshman Cordell Pemsl in the second half of a 96-90 overtime victory over Indiana.

They did.

“That’s the mindset of this whole team this year,” said freshman guard Jordan Bohannon, who didn’t have his best shooting game but finished with nine points and six assists. “We’ve stayed resilient through the ups and downs of the games.”

No, this isn’t one of Fran McCaffery’s most polished Iowa teams. It’s been an inconsistent ride all the way, from one TV timeout to the next.

But this group ranks right up there in fighting until the finish. The 2016-17 Hawkeyes have gone to overtime four times already in Big Ten Conference play; McCaffery’s first six teams played a total of seven.

After the much-needed victory, McCaffery told his guys one of the best things you can hear from a mentor: He was proud of them.

“And the beautiful thing was it was so many different people,” McCaffery said. “… There were a number of times where we could have packed it in and we never did. That says a lot about our guys.”

That leads into the big-picture point about Iowa improving to 15-13 overall, 7-8 in Big Ten play — alone in eighth out of 14 teams entering Wednesday.

This team of freshmen and sophomores still has big goals.

McCaffery won’t say it publicly, with his typical one-game-at-a-time approach, but his players did: Tuesday's win was “huge,” Bohannon said, for Iowa’s positioning in the March 8-12 Big Ten tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

The five-day tournament begins on Wednesday of that week, with the bottom four teams trying to play their way into a 12-team bracket. Iowa players are already talking about their best (and only) path to the program’s fourth straight NCAA Tournament — a feat that hasn’t been achieved since the 1980s — is to win the conference tourney in the nation’s capital.

“If we’re going to reach the NCAA Tournament, we’re going to have to make a run in the Big Ten tournament,” sophomore forward Nicholas Baer said. “Just moving forward with seeding, five games in five days is a tough ask. Four games in four days isn’t much easier. But it’s easier than five.”

That’s basketball math my 4-year-old can understand.

Now let’s play with more numbers.

With three games left, the 108-RPI Hawkeyes have clinched a tournament-seeding tiebreaker against Indiana (5-10 Big Ten) that it already secured has against Ohio State (5-10) and Rutgers (2-13).

That means Iowa needs to push one other team into the Nos. 11-14 seeds. If it can win on Senior Day — March 5 vs. Penn State (6-9) — it’ll have guaranteed avoiding that Wednesday slate in D.C.

Road wins between now and then — over No. 24 Maryland (Saturday) and/or No. 15 Wisconsin (March 2) — would be gravy and help the case for an NIT berth.

The Hawkeyes struck on a key to victory Tuesday, one that didn’t happen in Saturday's disappointing home loss to Illinois.

“Instead of playing not to lose,” said freshman forward Tyler Cook, who had 14 points and five rebounds, “we played to win today.”

Even among Iowa's inconsistency, the evidence of progress has been consistently there.

Every game, we seem to learn something. Tuesday, we learned that backups Christian Williams (career-high 10 points) and Ryan Kriener (2-for-2 shooting, three blocked shots) can be better impact players than bench-warmers.

We were reminded that with Peter Jok, who scored 15 of his remarkable 35 points in overtime, this team can always make a run. The Hawkeyes scored or got to the foul line in an incredible 22 of their last 26 possessions.

That’s hard to beat.

And "hard to beat" is a good characteristic, come one-and-done March.

Is it realistic to win four games in four days as Iowa's 2001 did? Sure.

Improbable? Absolutely.

But the Big Ten isn't overpowering this year. As has been proven on a nightly basis, anybody can beat anybody. Heck, Iowa has already beaten first-place Purdue.

Some fans have contended recently that it’s time to scrap this season and focus on playing for the future.

This fighting Iowa team, though, is still fixated on the present.

“We need to get on a roll and try to finish strong at the Big Ten,” Jok said. “Try to get the best seed we can get and go from there.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.