Iowa coach Fran McCaffery discusses a 96-93 loss to Michigan State. Chad Leistikow/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Swaths of empty brown seats, especially behind the baskets, were hard to miss during Iowa’s ESPN-televised home game Tuesday against Michigan State.
Yet this announced Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd of 11,350 was electric, energetic and loud — the best of the season.
And even though the Hawkeyes came up on the short end of this one — the fourth-ranked Spartans survived, 96-93 — they showed they can provide basketball worth cheering about.
“The crowd was fabulous,” eighth-year coach Fran McCaffery said. “You never know when it's snowing or snow is expected, the game is on ESPN, it's the late game, what is the crowd going to look like? But our fans were amazing.”
When Tyler Cook threw down a thunderous, left-handed dunk to tie the stacked Spartans at 60-60 with 14½ minutes left, the fans sprung to their feet and roared. Suddenly, an upset felt possible.
When Cook hammered home a two-handed dunk to give Iowa the lead a minute later, they got even louder.
When Jordan Bohannon followed with a fast-break 3-pointer to push Iowa’s advantage to 68-64, there was no doubt — Carver was rocking harder than it had all season.
The fans' fervor had an impact as the game wore on.
Even when the visiting coach is 23-year veteran Tom Izzo, referees can lend favor to the home team when the crowd is active. Michigan State was whistled for six fouls in the first four minutes of the second half, as Iowa gathered momentum in its climb back from multiple nine-point deficits.
“It was good to hear the crowd really loud,” said guard Maishe Dailey, whose 3-pointer with just over 9 minutes left had Iowa ahead 76-71.
It’s important to stress: Iowa lost this game.
Nobody’s trying to put a happy face on a loss.
But there was something to be learned from the events that transpired Tuesday night.
The Hawkeyes played hard. As hard as they have all season.
"I'm really proud of the fight," McCaffery said. "I thought the effort consistently was there."
The crowd responded in kind.
“Not only were they into it. But they knew that we were as well,” said sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl, whose tenacious play in 19 minutes (11 points, seven rebounds) was noticeable. “That we were really competing and were playing for the name on the front of the jersey, and not on the back.”
Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl talks about the energy that was felt by players in an entertaining 96-93 loss to No. 4 Michigan State. Chad Leistikow/The Register
The fans don’t have to wait to be a factor in the game. But the players know they are the catalysts in getting the Hawkeye faithful going.
This fan base wants to cheer for a winner. Most fan bases, including Iowa's, will cheer loudly if they see the effort — guys diving on the floor, hustling back on defense, taking charges.
Pemsl said he and Cook (26 points) were amped from the start in this one.
“We were yelling, we were screaming, we were getting everybody into the game,” Pemsl said. “… We made everybody else play harder. When we’re playing harder and making those hustle plays and shots are falling, and the crowd starts getting into it, that’s when home-court advantage really takes its toll. We were able to sustain that almost for the whole game.”
Those who say Carver-Hawkeye is too dated are correct. It’ll need a major face lift, at minimum, soon.
But this 35-year-old arena had an imposing atmosphere Tuesday night.
The announced crowd accounted for officially 4,000-plus empty seats, though there were more than that when you add the usual no-shows for an 8 p.m. weeknight game.
Imagine how loud it could've been if 15,500 were here.
This Hawkeye team has had a tough year mentally. Mostly freshmen and sophomores, they’ve naturally gotten down on themselves. They expected to be playing for an NCAA Tournament bid this month, not playing out the string of a disappointing year — 12-14 overall, 3-10 in Big Ten Conference play to date.
They feed off positive energy. They've shown they can unravel in a hurry with negative energy.
They didn’t get it done Tuesday night. But they learned something about themselves.
Maybe some of the fans here did, too.
“It hurts (learning) it 26 games into the year. But it’s still a positive,” Pemsl said. “We not only showed you guys but ourselves: We’re able to play with anybody in this country when the effort’s there, when the efficiency’s there and everybody’s playing together.”
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.