COLUMBUS — There’s an invisible line that a good team must cross to become a national or even conference contender.
Iowa climbed over that mental barrier on Sunday.
Roy Devin Marble scored 22 points, Strongsville native Aaron White added 19 and the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes ended the game on a 22-9 run to hand No. 3 Ohio State its second loss of the week, 84-74.
It was a watershed game for a program that has fallen short in big games continually over the past several years.
“This is the biggest one,” said Marble, a senior who has been on the front line of the Hawkeyes’ fits and starts lately. “It’s the most important one. Now, to have done this, this is the biggest one — thus far.”
They did it by playing their best when they have frequently buckled — with the game on the line in the closing minutes. Three times this season they had top 10 teams down by double digits but couldn’t close the deal.
Not this time.
“We’ve proven all year long that we’re one of the top teams,” said White, the stepson of former Highland athletic director Bo Kuntz. “This finally puts it on our resume to signify that. We’ve been up on teams that are highly ranked, but we’ve lost those games down the stretch by not making key plays. I’m really happy, because that’s all we’ve been stressing, the 40-minute game and playing to win. And that’s what we did.”
Melsahn Besabe had 11 points and 10 rebounds, Mike Gesell added 11 points and Jarrod Uthoff had 10 off the bench for the Hawkeyes (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten), who ended a string of eight straight losses to the Buckeyes.
They did it on coach Fran McCaffery’s return to the sideline. He had been suspended by the Big Ten for one game after angrily confronting the officials at last Sunday’s 75-71 loss at No. 4 Wisconsin. He sat out Thursday night’s 93-67 rout of Northwestern, with assistant Kirk Speraw filling in for him.
“What’s interesting about that, the way our guys handled that whole thing, was incredibly businesslike,” McCaffery said. “They were just like, ‘Here we go. Business as usual.’”
How big was the win? It erased several ugly marks the Hawkeyes had been carrying around for years.
It was Iowa’s first win over a top-five team since an 83-65 victory at No. 2 Missouri on Dec. 15, 2001.
Iowa was 0-2 on opponents’ home courts this season coming in. Their three losses have come against teams with a combined 45-2 record (Villanova, Iowa State and Wisconsin) — with each loss coming by five or fewer points.
The Hawkeyes had not beaten Ohio State — one of the Big Ten’s bullies since Thad Matta came aboard a decade ago — since 2008. They hadn’t beaten the Buckeyes in Columbus since 2004, making a long, quiet flight home on the last seven trips.
The Buckeyes (15-2, 2-2) grabbed a 53-44 lead on Amedeo Della Valle’s 3 from the left corner with 12:49 left.
This was when Iowa had made it a habit of backing down and taking the loss.
Instead, the Hawkeyes found another gear.
They scored 11 of the next 13 points, with Gesell’s 3 from the top of the key tying it at 55 with 10:25 remaining.
Down 65-62 with less than 6 minutes left, again the Hawkeyes refused to fold.
A free throw by Uthoff and another by Marble cut the lead to a point before Uthoff scored consecutive baskets, both on layups. The first, at the 4:55 mark, put the Hawkeyes up 66-65.
Ohio State suddenly couldn’t do much right. The Buckeyes, who had 17 turnovers for the game and five during 11 possessions near the finish, gave up repeated shots when the Hawkeyes snagged offensive rebounds, and at the other end they had difficulty even hanging on to the ball.
Marble stole the ball from LaQuinton Ross, who led the Buckeyes with 22 points, before Uthoff’s second layup. Then Ross was called for a travel under pressure.
Marble was fouled in the backcourt and hit both shots for a 70-65 Iowa lead with 3½ minutes remaining.
The Hawkeyes led by four when White — with 40 friends and family members making the two-hour drive from suburban Cleveland to root him on — had the ball tipped away. He recovered it beyond midcourt, and then drove to hit a 12-foot fallaway as the shot clock was running down with 2:06 left.
That made it 74-68 and Ohio State never made a serious threat again.
“That might be one of the bigger plays of the game, because of the momentum that would have shifted if I hadn’t gotten the ball back and made the layup,” White said.
Ohio State came into the week with 15 consecutive wins and high hopes. Then they made a furious comeback at No. 5 Michigan State before losing 72-68 in overtime.
Then it was the Buckeyes, and not the Hawkeyes, who had no answers in the final minutes.
“The biggest thing is getting our guys to understand, you can’t let one mistake compound into another mistake,” Matta said. “That’s kind of what happened to us today.”