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Wednesday, January 26, 2005
 
Northwestern 75, Iowa 74 (OT)
So many questions after this one -
How do you blow a 12 point lead with 3 minutes left?
Is it possible?
Who were you passing to, Pierre?
How do you leave a guy wide open for the game winning three?
Will Iowa's players be able to regroup after this one?
Will they pack it in the rest of the way?
Will I care?
How can you be competitive against three top 15 teams and lose to Michigan and Northwestern?
Is 9-7 in the Big Ten good enough to make the NCAA tournament?
Isn't this all way too familiar?
How could I not see this coming?
Was this the last straw for Alford?

Wow, do I feel naive. I thought this was the year the Hawks would finally put it together. They beat Louisville. They beat Texas. They crushed Texas Tech. They took Illinois to overtime, on the road. Brunner was becoming a force. Horner was unbelievable in Maui. Haluska showed flashes of offensive talent. Sure, they lost the first two Big Ten games, but I bought into the "It was Christmas break, we had a bad week, now we're going to wipe the slate clean" rhetoric. They came back from that to beat Minnesota, challenge Illinois, and stomp Purdue - I was back aboard the bandwagon. The Hawks had finally turned the corner, and were ready for the season the faithful fans had always expected.

My optimism blinded me into missing or justifying too many warning signs. The close exhibition game with Laval. The close game with lowly St. Louis. The home loss to injury-riddled Michigan. The blowout against Ohio State. The fact that the offense was centered around Pierre Pierce. The way the Hawks get dominated on the boards. The lack of interior defense. The way Horner has played since leaving Maui.

Now I know what it's like to be a Cubs fan. You come into the season with a guarded optimism, not wanting to get attached to a team that has repeatedly let you down. Your team reels off some wins, and looks like an early contender. You tell yourself, "hey, this team is really good, there's no way can history repeat itself again." Then reality sets in, your team returns to mediocrity, and your season ends way too early. And it finally hits me - Steve Alford has turned Iowa into the Chicago Cubs of the Big Ten. Couple that with ridiculous ticket prices, and I also finally understand why no one shows up at Carver (maybe they just need to sell Old Style).

Anatomy of a Choke
Warning - this recap has not been rated. It contains descriptions of mass asphyxiation, and is not suitable for mild-hearted Hawkeyes. Reader discretion is advised.

So it all starts at about the 3:00 mark in the second half. Hawks are up 12, and I'm finally starting to breathe that sigh of relief, as in, "whew....glad we're not gonna get stung by Northwestern again, and we're going to pull out an always-tough Big Ten road win." Michael Jenkins hits a three to cut it to nine, but hey, that's too much to overcome, right? Pierce gets fouled with 2:05 left and bricks both free throws, but c'mon, nobody blows a nine point lead in the last two minutes of a game, right?

20 seconds later, Vedran Vukusic drains a three, and it hits you: "it's happening again." Iowa is up six with 1:30 to go, but the loss is already inevitable. Cynical, maybe, but it's just part of being an Iowa fan during the Alford era.

70 seconds, 2 Iowa missed free throws, and seven Vukusic points later, Northwestern has the ball, trailing by three. It's pretty clear - get a stop here, and go home with a hard-fought road victory. But demonstrating once again what not to do is Pierce, who pulled a Glen Worley and fouled Vukusic on a 3-point attempt with 13 seconds left. The Croatian made all three shots to tie the game, giving Iowa the last shot. 13 seconds would seem like plenty of time to get a decent shot (or two) at the basket, but Iowa decided they were better off standing around until Pierce had the ball with a couple seconds left, and was forced to take an ugly fadeaway from about 16 feet.

There were times during the overtime period that I thought luck might just be on Iowa's side. Horner hit an incredibly deep three which had me cursing when he shot it but speechless when it went through. Pierce followed with his typical 1-on-everybody forced shot that somehow dropped, and suddenly, Iowa is up 5 with 1:45 to go. Vukusic single-handedly reduced the deficit to two, and with under 30 seconds left, Greg Brunner blocked Davor Duvancic's layup attempt, and Horner was sent to the line to ice the game. As if to confirm my suspicions that the game was not yet over, Jeff incredibly missed both shots.

Northwestern came down the court, called timeout, and setup what I was sure to be the game winning three pointer. I was simply positive that they would go ahead on this possession. Instead, they attempted a pass from the top of the key to a player cutting to the basket, but the ball skipped out of bounds untouched. And with 5 seconds left, a 2 point lead, and the ball out of bounds, I finally felt that Iowa had dodged the bullet. There was no way they could blow it now.

Leave it to Pierce to crush my optimism once again. With every Iowa player smothered, he managed to find a wide open....T.J. Parker (note to PP - your team was wearing black). The inevitable feeling of a loss returns, and Northwestern calls timeout to set up a play for Vukusic. Michael Jenkins happens to be WIDE OPEN in the corner, so the inbounds pass goes to him instead. Jenkins tosses up a floater that hits rim, bounces up, and an eternity later, drops through the hoop for the game winner.

Positives
I've been pretty negative so far, but even this cynic saw a few good signs tonight -
Erek Hansen got into early foul trouble, enabling Doug Thomas to play early and often.
Pierce only took 10 shots (although it's tough to shoot much when you have 10 turnovers!)
Mike Henderson only played 4 minutes.
Haluska hit 3 of his 4 three attempts.
Brunner was excellent, again.
Carlton Reed saw decent playing time and produced, finishing with 8 points in 15 minutes.

Conclusion
I may have been a little overly-dramatic for a one-point loss. Surely, Iowa's season is far from over. They're 14-5, with several good wins. They can still finish strong and make the NCAA tournament.

But tonight this rookie-Hawkeye realized that this team is not one deserving of your unending optimism. It's the team that teases you with close losses to top-tier teams, only to follow with losses to cellar dwellers. The message board crowd is calling for Alford's head, and I may finally be ready to join those jaded, surly masses.

Comments:
Being a Hawkeye fan in the Alford era, has made me physically sick with each dissapointing year. Years of great coaches, like Lute Olsen, George Raveling, and Dr. Tom, in the past brought success to Iowa. Love the players, but the couch needs to leave. Who would you suggest as a replacement? The coach at Nothern Iowa is brought great results last year and has a competitive team this year.
 
I felt your pain last night. And we wrote eerily similar game recaps.
 
Tough loss last night, no doubt about it. I've had a chance to catch the Hawkeyes on the tube a few times this year -- a fun bunch to watch.
 
Thanks for the comments. As far as a new coach goes, I really don't know who I'd like. I'm basically a numbers guy, so I usually end up ignoring the effece of coaching because of the difficulty in evaluating its value. And I guess I'm not totally on board with the idea of firing Alford, but that's probably since this is only my first year in Iowa City.
 
10 turnovers by Pierce. That's simply amazing.
 
Doug Thomas's 10 rebounds in 18 minutes was notable too. I'm ready to see him play 20-25 mpg, provided he can play that long without fouling out.
 
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