IOWA CITY, Ia. — Playing against his home-state Big Ten Conference team for probably the last time, Mike Gesell delivered what can best be described as a vintage Mike Gesell performance.
The senior point guard was not the flashiest player on the Carver-Hawkeye Arena floor Tuesday, but he was the most consistent on a night when Iowa needed just that in a workmanlike 77-66 win over Nebraska.
Gesell finished with 22 points and 10 assists for his first career double-double as the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes improved to 3-0 in league play for the first time since Steve Alford’s 2002-03 team that wound up in the NIT.
“Going against his rival … it’s extra motivation for him,” teammate Jarrod Uthoff said. “He just played great, the way he moved the ball, the way he attacked, penetrated, kicked out, scored for himself. It was fantastic.”
Extra motivation? Gesell wasn’t so sure about that, even though longtime friend and teammate Adam Woodbury said he’s helped convert the South Sioux City, Neb., native transition from his misguided days as a Nebraska football fan to “the good side.”
“It’s not different than any other Big Ten team, to be honest,” Gesell said afterward. “Every win is one step closer to where we want to be.”
The senior had 22 points and 10 assists.
Iowa has now won nine consecutive Big Ten regular-season games for the first time since the 1969-70 Hawkeyes went unbeaten (14-0) in league play.
And the streak might not have happened without Gesell. Fourth-year Huskers coach Tim Miles joked afterward that he was not to blame for Gesell crossing state lines to play for Fran McCaffery. (Miles was coaching Colorado State at the time.)
On Tuesday, every time Nebraska tried to charge back, Gesell had an answer. For example: After a Tai Webster 3 with about 5 minutes to go cut Iowa’s lead to 63-53, Gesell flung a pass from behind the half-court line that hit Uthoff at a perfect elevation for an alley-oop lay-in.
Gesell, making his 112th career start, seems to do whatever his teammates need at any given moment. Against No. 1 Michigan State last week while Uthoff struggled, he took a more aggressive offensive role and scored a career-high 25 points in an 83-70 win. Against Purdue on Saturday, he attempted only five shots but had seven assists and seven rebounds in Iowa’s comeback 70-63 win.
“You go through that process of trying to figure things out, especially as a point guard,” said Gesell, who at 104 assists for the season (6.9 a game) is only 32 away from setting a career high. “It’s not necessarily confidence, but (it’s) when do you need to look for your shot? When do you need to get others involved? I think that’s something I’ve really improved on this year, just being able to pick my spots.”
On Tuesday before a soft crowd of 11,736, Gesell didn’t even try his first shot until 5 minutes, 53 seconds remained in the first half. He was especially clutch on a night when his backup — starting 2 guard Anthony Clemmons — was playing through a hip pointer and went scoreless in 17 minutes.
“He needed to be great tonight because clearly Clemmons was not himself,” McCaffery said. “(That) put a lot of pressure on Mike, especially when they started pressing late. But I thought in that one stretch in the second half, he and Jarrod kind of took the game over and made sure we won.”
Defense certainly played a part in moving Iowa to 12-3 overall. The Hawkeyes held Nebraska to 29 percent shooting in the first half and their fourth consecutive opponent to 70 points or less.
Iowa leads the Big Ten in blocked shots with 97 (Ohio State has 93), with Uthoff’s 50 leading the way. The 6-foot-9 forward swatted another four Tuesday, all in the first half when Iowa overcame a flat start and a 10-0 deficit against the Cornhuskers (8-8, 0-3).
“Not sure why we came out flat,” Uthoff said. “But we turned it around.”
The Iowa senior had 25 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks.
Nicholas Baer and Dom Uhl (10 points, eight rebounds) injected a spark of defense off McCaffery’s bench, and Iowa quickly stormed back behind Uthoff’s offense. The senior, who is putting himself front and center in the Big Ten Player of the Year conversation, reeled off 13 first-half points and Iowa led 31-22 at halftime. Uthoff finished with 25 points and eight rebounds.
“At least he doesn’t have Aaron White with him,” Miles joked about Iowa’s No. 2 all-time leading scorer who graduated last spring. “(Uthoff)’s a hard cover. He’s a terrific basketball player.”
Defense had a lot to do with Iowa’s taking control of the game. The Cornhuskers went 0-for-12 to close the half, mostly on bothered or blocked shots, and didn’t score for a stretch of 8:18 that bled past halftime.
“That end of the first half where we don’t score for 7½ minutes … that’s just too big a dry spell,” Miles said. “I thought Iowa was flat early, and who wouldn’t be after the week that they had?”
Now Clemmons and the Hawkeyes have nine days between games — one of their two “byes” in the 18-game conference season — until a Jan. 14 visit to No. 5 Michigan State. Iowa hasn’t won in the Breslin Center since Jan. 28, 1993.
“We won’t really be focusing on preparing for Michigan State,” McCaffery said. “We’re going to prepare to get better as a team.”