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Leistikow: Lots of fire, a little luck go long way in refreshing Hawkeyes performance

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It seems generally true: Good basketball teams create their own luck through hustling, smarts and execution.

Iowa actually did a very good job in all three areas Tuesday.

But, once in a while … a little fortune out of nowhere sure helps.

The Hawkeyes — statistically one of the unluckiest teams in America — got one lovely bounce late in the first half against Wisconsin. And it seemed to be exactly what this struggling group needed to trigger what became a breezy 85-67 victory before an announced crowd of 11,563 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Iowa's Tyler Cook celebrates a basket during the Hawkeyes' game against Wisconsin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.

More on that bounce in a minute.

But first, it’s OK to exhale and enjoy a game result for once. The Hawkeyes' first home victory in five tries this Big Ten season puts them 2-7 at the halfway mark of conference play.

Hey, it feels better than 1-8.

"It’s nice to have a little relief," said Jordan Bohannon, whose 13 points and 11 assists helped the brother of two former Badgers improve to 2-0 against Wisconsin, "and let yourself know that things are OK."

So about that luck, that factor of which the analytics website KenPom.com suggested entering Tuesday that Iowa rated No. 322 out of 351 teams this season.

With Wisconsin having chopped a 12-point Iowa lead to a precarious 32-28 as the first half wound down, I could sense Iowa fans tensing up.

They’ve watched this formula play out before: Long scoring droughts plus indifferent defense equals a game that gets away.

So, when Isaiah Moss uncorked a low-trajectory 3-point shot from the right corner, it was easy to see it was going to be short. And it was.

Yet the basketball struck the front of the bracket between the cylinder and backboard, popped straight up into the air and — seemingly in slow motion — swished through the hoop.

“I was trying to think of (an explanation) to tell you guys," Moss said sheepishly. "But honestly, I don’t know how it went in.”

Three unlikely points. One big momentum change.

"No question, that was critical," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery would later say.

On the other end, a wide-open Wisconsin layup by Brad Davison rolled off the front of the rim, and Moss scored again just before the horn on a sweet mid-range floater.

Instead of the meltdowns that had been prevalent throughout Iowa’s underachieving season, there was a new sensation in Carver.

Players were smiling. Fans were screaming.

And Iowa had a — what’s this called again? — halftime lead. Hawkeyes 37, Badgers 28.

"We didn’t know the last time we were in this position," Bohannon said.

It was actually the first time Iowa had led at the break in a Big Ten game this season.

Just three days earlier, the Hawkeyes trailed by 31 at halftime in a humbling loss here against Purdue.

A little luck can go a long way.

To start the second half, Hawkeye players kept the pep in their step — another thing that’s been lacking for much of the season, save a big rally Jan. 11 at last-in-the-Big-Ten Illinois that seems like an eternity ago.

Tyler Cook (17 points) opened the second half with two quick-strike 2s, including a thunderous alley-oop dunk, and Iowa’s lead was 41-28.

There would be no Hawkeye meltdown on this night.

And from there, Iowa (11-11 overall) looked a lot like the team a lot of people — myself included — thought it would be this season.

It shot 51.7 percent overall, answering almost every Wisconsin mini-run, and piled up 48 second-half points.

It committed just one turnover in its first 23 possessions, a refreshing change in ball security.

It even played good defense; Wisconsin (10-11, 3-5) missed its first eight field goals and shot just 40 percent.

“It was obvious that we played with a lot more fire than we did (against Purdue)," said Luka Garza, who could be dubbed a freshman fire starter after his emotional 17-point, 16-rebound performance. "A lot of that was motivation from what we saw on film — the lack of that type of fire.

“Everyone started getting in there and (got) emotional and (started) screaming. That’s what happens when momentum comes to you."

So, how to harness it? And what's there to play for?

Next is a Saturday game at improving-but-beatable Nebraska. Then a Tuesday game against mercurial Minnesota. Then a Happy Valley rematch with Penn State, which handed Iowa its Big Ten-opening loss back on Dec. 2.

It's one game at a time, but this team senses that Tuesday's performance could serve as a turning point.

It only will become one if the main lesson from this game can be maintained: Bring the fire.

And, oftentimes, a little luck will follow.

"To know we finally put a full 40 minutes together as a team, is something we can use as a foundation moving forward," Bohannon said. "Obviously, we’re not going to be satisfied, because we’re still 2-7 in the league. We think we can have a stretch of games here where we can get back into contention for the middle."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.