Leistikow: Never-quit Iowa men's basketball team can't be counted out in any game, or this season

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − Not even halfway into January and just 30% of the way into the Big Ten Conference season, the identity of this Iowa basketball team is becoming clear.

These are the comeback kids. No deficit ever seems too large. Yeah, they’ve had ups and downs. And they will get way behind at times. But this collection of players, win or lose, will play hard for all 40 minutes. And sometimes 45.

The Hawkeyes clawed back with a miraculous finish in regulation on Thursday night, then dominated the five-minute overtime to outlast visiting Michigan, 93-84, before 11,498 fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“It just shows the fight we have in our team,” said Kris Murray, who played every second of this fast-paced, high-octane contest but still didn’t look tired in scoring 27 points. “Wisconsin, Indiana, even Penn State … showed the kind of toughness we have. We’re never going to go without a fight.”

The three home Big Ten games, in particular, the Hawkeyes have probably made those who left the arena early to beat traffic a regret that decision.

Payton Sandfort was a joy-filled guy in Iowa's 93-84 win against Michigan, especially after scoring a career-high 26 points with seven rebounds and three assists.

Against Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 11: Iowa was down 60-52 with under a minute to go, then reeled off an 8-0 run – getting a bucket, steal and a Patrick McCaffery 3-pointer in the final 20 seconds – to force overtime at 60-60 before falling by 3.

Against Indiana on Jan. 5: Down 21 points in the first half and still down 84-78 with 3½ minutes left, the Hawkeyes stormed back to steal an improbable 91-89 win.

And now we can add Thursday’s performance to the comeback ledger.

Michigan was red-hot for most of the night, canning 14-of-25 3-pointers in regulation. An opposing team doesn’t win often in such situations. But Iowa committed only six turnovers for the game. It got contributions it needed from Murray plus seldom-used bench players Josh Dix (10 points, five assists) and Riley Mulvey (4 points, 13 minutes) to stay within striking distance early. And it leaned on the new rising star of the team, sophomore Payton Sandfort, late.

Michigan led, 77-70, with the ball with two minutes to go. But Sandfort stole the ball from Jett Howard, and a Filip Rebraca bucket with 1:46 left cut the lead to 5.

After Iowa's better-as-the-game-went defense forced Michigan’s Kofe Bufkin to step out of bounds, Sandfort buried a top-of-the-key 3 with 1:03 left to make it 77-75.

More:It looks like Payton Sandfort's slump is over. That adds another dimension to Iowa basketball

Bufkin silenced the roaring Carver crowd with a bucket to make it 79-75 with 29 seconds to go, and inexplicably … Iowa didn’t need to foul to get back into it. That’s because Sandfort wheeled to the top of the key, quick-released a 3 and was fouled by Bufkin. Swish, as he crashed to the ground. Then with the arena quiet and all the pressure on him, Sandfort calmly buried the free throw to tie it at 79 with 20.7 seconds to go. A block by Dix at the end of regulation, and this one headed to overtime.

“I came off the pin down and felt him on my hip. I knew we had to get one up quick,” Sandfort said of his 4-point play. “Then got taken out.”

Heat check?

“Yeah, you could say that,” Sandfort said, grinning. “At the perfect time.”

Teammates love Sandfort. He brightens up a room with his smile. Murray said there wasn’t a player he was happier for than Sandfort, who was 0-for-19 from the floor in Big Ten play before this three-game Big Ten winning streak in the last eight days. He scored 22 points in 22 minutes in Sunday’s wire-to-wire win at Rutgers. (See, Iowa doesn’t always have to play from behind.)

And he poured in 24 of his career-high 26 points against the Wolverines after being inserted with 17:40 left in the second half, after coach Fran McCaffery was furious at his team’s defense and called timeout.

From Kennington Smith:Good stories emerge in Iowa's OT win

Iowa was down 51-44, at that time. The Hawkeyes kept grinding, even as Michigan’s Jett Howard (34 points) seemingly couldn’t miss as they also tried to hold off star center Hunter Dickinson (13 points, 12 rebounds but just six shot attempts and four turnovers).

And then overtime.

Sandfort’s time, in this case.

He began the extra frame by continuing to find openings, even as Michigan was hyper-aware of his every step. He swished a baseline jumper with his signature quick release to give Iowa one of its few leads of the night to that point, 81-79. A few trips later, with Iowa up 3, he made the play of the game. Or the co-play of the game, you could say.

Murray tossed up a right-wing 3. Sandfort joked that he normally starts running to the other end celebrating after a Murray 3. But on this one, he saw the ball get tipped and went for the rebound. While in the air, Sandfort caught the ball and flung the ball toward the basket in one motion.

Off the glass and in, and he drew another foul and made the free throw for an 85-79 lead. The Carver crowd now sensed the home team was going to pull this off.

“I kind of forced that one up,” Murray said. “And it was right place, right time. … I don’t know if he saw the basket, honestly.”

Did he?

Nah, Sandfort admitted. It was a blind shot. (Hey, when you’re hot, you’re hot.)

“I saw it flying through the air,” Sandfort said, “and went up and try to make a play on it.”

What McCaffery loved about Sandfort’s performance Thursday was that he did more than score. He had seven rebounds and three assists. That’s been so huge with Patrick McCaffery missing his third straight game as he deals with anxiety issues. Sandfort has filled his teammate’s scoring void and then some, after the early-season shooting struggles.

More:Leistikow: Why Patrick McCaffery made his 'brave' decision and when he'll be back

“Everybody loves him. He’s such a great teammate. So positive,” Fran McCaffery said. “We’re all rooting for him. When he’s cooking, it definitely improves the energy level of everyone else.”

There’s definitely something to that.

The shot that broke Sandfort’s 0-for-19 streak? It came when Iowa was down 23-4 early against Indiana. The Hawkeyes were 0-3 in the Big Ten at that time and failing miserably at home. They were on the ropes, maybe for the season.

But Sandfort got inserted off the bench and canned a 3-pointer to cut it to 23-7. A seemingly insignificant bucket then. But little by little, the Hawkeyes would chip away and win that game. Sandfort’s confidence grew. So did the team’s. The NCAA tournament is definitely within reach.

“We got a lot of our swagger back that we didn’t have before,” Murray said. “Guys are playing well, feeding off each other. Chemistry’s great. This is a team that didn’t stop believing, even when we went on a little skid.”

We learned a lot about this team's identity in the last eight days. Now, the Hawkeyes (11-6 overall 3-3 Big Ten) have to muster up the energy to keep it going. They've got another two games at home on deck: 3:30 p.m. Sunday vs. Maryland, then 8 p.m. Wednesday vs. Northwestern. Murray hopes the place is packed Sunday.

“Just getting back to .500 in the conference. I mean, a week-and-a-half ago, everybody was in the dumps,” Sandfort said. “We were down 28-7 against Indiana. It feels a lot better now. We’ve just got to keep grinding. It’s just one game, but it feels pretty good.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.