COLUMBUS, Ohio — Only one Division I team out of 350-plus every year gets to be champion of the NCAA Tournament. That translates to many sad locker rooms around America every March.
The one reserved for Iowa inside Nationwide Arena was sad, too, on Sunday afternoon after the Hawkeyes’ incredible comeback against Tennessee came up short.
Iowa forced overtime after trailing by 25 points. But this was the end of the line for the Hawkeyes, who amazingly never led in an 83-77 loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Iowa needed one more point in regulation — just one — to match the biggest comeback victory in tournament history.
“What we did today was something that not too many teams have done,” Hawkeye junior Tyler Cook said. “For that reason, it hurts even more.”
Cook’s eyes were red as he spoke. There were red eyes everywhere in the locker room. Some tears, too.
It was a strange season. The broadcaster was suspended twice. The coach was suspended. There were exhilarating wins. Crushing losses. Highs and lows. And now, the end.
How to assess it all?
I went around the emotional locker room and asked as many guys as I could: What will you remember most about this season?
The answers varied, but you’ll notice a common theme.
“The type of change we made,” said junior guard Jordan Bohannon, who scored a team-high 18 points. “It’s tough to go from a 14-19 season to making the round of 32 and battling one of the best teams in the country.”
Junior guard Maishe Dailey’s answer: “How much heart we have. How much we battled compared to last year.”
Said junior guard Isaiah Moss: “I’m just going to remember our resiliency, our fight all year.”
And here was the answer that maybe best dovetails into Sunday’s game, from junior forward Ryan Kriener: “What we did when our backs were against the wall.”
There were a lot of times that it would’ve been easy to count out the Hawkeyes this season — even the preseason, when they were picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten Conference by the league’s media.
After they were off to an 0-3 Big Ten start with two blowout losses … they won nine of their next 11 in conference play.
After they were down 15 points with 4½ minutes to go against Northwestern … they won at the buzzer.
After the four-game slide to end the regular season … they put together two of their best games of the season — a whipping of Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, then against Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
► Leistikow's Final Thoughts: On Tyler Cook's best decision, Nicholas Baer being 'a legend'
And after falling behind Tennessee, 44-19, they didn’t give up on the program’s first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years. Little by little, they chipped away. And when Bohannon hit three free throws with 2:39 to go, they had tied Tennessee, 67-67.
When Joe Wieskamp hit two more with 20 seconds left, it was 71-71.
Overtime didn’t go Iowa’s way. Which is why this was a loss.
But if you’re asking me, Iowa’s defining moment of the season came in this loss.
It was after Moss missed a free throw with 8:17 to go, and fifth-year senior Nicholas Baer scrapped for an offensive rebound — and passed to Bohannon, who was waiting on the left wing for the basketball.
In front of the section with the players’ family, Bohannon stepped into a long 3. Held his form. He knew it was in.
Swish. Iowa’s deficit was 61-56.
Suddenly, it felt like this comeback might actually happen.
“That’ll go down as one of my favorite moments since I’ve been at Iowa,” Bohannon said. “What made it so cool was how we fought back. It came off a Baer hustle play like it normally does. He found me, and I was able to get a 3 off. I knew before he threw it to me that we were going to hit a 3 here.”
Bohannon jumped in the air and pumped his fist as he faced the Hawkeye section, where his brothers and parents were sitting.
The moment was a perfect snapshot of a scrappy, confident group that kept coming back for more. A group that fought for 12-plus months to get here.
“We were two possessions away from doing something that hadn’t been done in 20 years," Cook said. "It hurts."
It seems appropriate to give the final word of the season to Baer. It was his last of 129 games at Iowa.
What will the team’s lone senior remember most about this 23-12 season?
“As corny as it sounds, you always remember the relationships," Baer said. "... Five years from now, I probably won’t remember all the Xs and Os. But I’ll never forget the relationships I built with these guys. And I love them to death.”
Some of the Hawkeyes left Columbus with their heads down.
But after how they fought through adversity time after time, they have every right to hold their heads high.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.