Brown: How Iowa pulled off the big upset

Rick Brown

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Admit it. When Iowa's game at No. 12 North Carolina hung in the balance with less than two minutes to play Wednesday, you were expecting the worst.

A close but oh-so-far moment. Another missed opportunity. The Hawkeyes had lost 16 of their previous 20 games decided by five points or less or in overtime heading into Wednesday's ACC/Big Ten Challenge game.

But this time, the Hawkeyes rode Mike Gesell's clutch 3-point play that gave them the lead for good and upset the Tar Heels 60-55.

"It took a lot of toughness," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "It took rebounding the ball. It took a guy like Mike making some huge plays."

It was a refreshing flip of script. Especially pulling out a game on the road against an opponent that was ranked fifth nationally as recently as last week. And doing it with defense.

"Every guy in that locker room dreams of moments like this," born-again guard Anthony Clemmons said.

Granted, this is not Michael Jordan's North Carolina. The Tar Heels ride preseason all-American and Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Marcus Paige on offense. And when the Linn-Mar alum is off, as he was Wednesday, the challenge increases significantly.

But Iowa's not giving its second straight ACC/Big Ten Challenge victory back. Even though, in the words of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, "Maybe it's not that good of a win the way we played."

This was just the fourth nonconference home loss for a Williams-coached Tar Heels team in 90 games. Iowa's 60 points were the fewest scored by a visitor in a win at the Smith Center in 13 years.

The Hawkeyes didn't set the world on fire on offense themselves. They won this game because of their defense. Let that sink in for a second. In last season's tailspin, Iowa pretty much quit playing defense and lost seven of its last eight games.

In losses to its previous two rated opponents this season, Texas and Syracuse in New York City, Iowa didn't have the defensive toughness to stop people when their own shots stopped falling. Iowa shot 24.2 percent from the field in the second half Wednesday, including 12 misses from 3-point range in as many attempts.

"Against Texas, we went nine straight possessions where we didn't score, and the lead went to 15 quickly," McCaffery said. "This time, we didn't let that happen."

Wednesday was an NCAA Tournament resume-builder, change the Hawkeyes can jingle in their collective pockets the rest of the season. But the challenge now is to duplicate that defensive effort moving forward. Iowa had one of these wins early last Big Ten season, at No. 3 Ohio State. But the Hawkeyes' late-season free fall devalued that triumph.

It would help to get the offense in sync pretty soon. One of the most remarkable things about the victory over the Tar Heels was that Iowa's two leading scorers on the season, Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff, were a combined 2-for-19 from the field.

But they did make 13-of-14 free-throw attempts and combined for 19 rebounds. Uthoff's length was a defensive plus (five blocked shots).

"If you would have told a lot of people that I wouldn't have made a field goal and we won by five, I think they'd have been surprised," White said. "I'm not trying to be arrogant. But it wasn't our offense that won the game. It was our defense. To a man."

McCaffery came to Iowa with a reputation as an offensive coach, and the Hawkeyes have had a lot of success with the transition game since he arrived. Iowa is 36-6 when scoring at least 80 points under his watch.

But here's a more impressive statistic. The Hawkeyes are now 45-1 when holding opponents to fewer than 61 points. And that is downright defensive.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.