Iowa enters the 2021 NCAA Tournament as a #2 seed in the West Region—by far the program’s best chance to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1999. In honor of this year’s Hawkeyes as well as the heroes of the program’s March Madness past, this is the second in a three-part series examining Iowa’s last three runs to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
After coming four points short of making the 1987 Final Four, Iowa basketball returned nearly everyone entering the the 1987-88 season. Led by floor general B.J. Armstrong, who averaged 17.4 points and 4.6 assists per game, the Hawkeyes featured four future NBA players in their starting five (Armstrong, Roy Marble, Ed Horton, and Bill Jones) and opened the season ranked #11 in the country with designs on taking that final, giant step to the program's fourth Final Four.
Iowa started hot early, opening the season 6-0 featuring a 19-point win over eventual-National Champion #7 Kansas in Hawaii on their way to winning the Maui Invitational. The Hawkeyes reached #3 in the country before suffering a seven-point home loss to #4 Arizona in mid-December (more on them later). Following an 89-88 upset loss to Illinois State, the Hawkeyes won 15 of their final 22 games including victories over #12 Indiana, #13 Illinois, and #7 Michigan.
Iowa finished 22-9 (12-6 B1G) and tied for third in the Big Ten. Though it was a disappointing season relative to preseason expectations, the Hawkeyes still received an at-large bid to the Big Dance—a #5 seed in the 1988 NCAA Tournament’s West Region.
First Round - #5 Iowa 102, #12 Florida State 98
Armstrong’s game-high 35 points, 20 of them coming in the first half, spearheaded an incredible team-wide offensive display as the Hawkeyes outlasted Florida State 102-98 to advance to the second round in Los Angeles. Six Iowa players (including all five starters) scored in double-figures, led by Armstrong who did a little bit of everything in canning 16 free-throws and three threes to go along with three assists and a steal.
The Hawkeyes erased a late first-half deficit with an 18-5 run to take a 51-46 lead into the locker room, then used a tenacious press defense to push the lead to 77-61 with 13:00 to play. The Seminoles mounted a late rally and took a one-point lead, 93-92, with just over three minutes remaining before Armstrong hit a jumper and drew a charge on the other end. First-team All-Big Ten forward and conference rebounding champion Ed Horton seemingly put Florida State away by draining an “and-one" basket and subsequent free-throw with 2:03 left.
Horton (14), Roy Marble (14), and Kent Hill (10) combined for 38 points and 21 boards as the Hawkeyes posted 51 points in each half on the back of a 32/53 (60.4%) shooting performance and making 32 free throws. Tony Dawson led Florida State with 30 points.
The victory sent Iowa into a second round date with #4 UNLV—the program responsible for arguably the most heartbreaking defeat in program history one step from the Final Four just one year prior.
This time however, the Hawkeyes would get the last laugh.
Second Round - #5 Iowa 104, #4 UNLV 86
369 days after Iowa blew a 16-point halftime lead and watched the Runnin' Rebels run past them and into the Final Four, the Hawkeyes got their chance at payback and did not disappoint. Horton and Jeff Moe combined for 48 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists while Marble, who was held to just nine points against UNLV the year prior, torched UNLV for 22 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals in guiding Iowa to a 104-86 blowout win.
The Hawkeyes pressed the Rebels from the opening tip, running them ragged and forcing 14 first half turnovers—23 for the game. Iowa scored the first 10 points of the contest and, after Vegas pulled within two late in the first half, an 11-3 Hawkeyes run put them ahead by double-digits at halftime and they never looked back.
In eclipsing 100 points for the second straight game, Iowa shot 56.5% from the field and made 31 free throws yet only hit three of 10 attempts from beyond the arc. Gerald Paddio’s 34 points and Stacey Augmon’s double-double on 10 points and 10 rebounds paced UNLV, but the Hawkeyes led wire-to-wire in "runnin" the Rebels right out of the tournament.
With the ‘87 Elite Eight loss fresh in their minds, Iowa put the finishing touches on the team that beat them in Seattle the year prior and, in the process, booked a return trip to the Pacific Northwest.
“All year, we thought we should have won that game,” Moe told reporters after the game. “All year, our friends and relatives said, ‘How could you lose with that lead?’ When they started coming back today, we said, ‘Oh, no, don’t let up.”
Ahh, revenge is sweet.
West Region Semifinal - #1 Arizona 99, #5 Iowa 79
Standing between Iowa and a return trip to the Regional Final was one of the greatest coaches in school history and the last to lead it to a Final Four—Lute Olson and his top-seeded Arizona Wildcats. For the second straight year, the Hawkeyes’ run would end in Seattle as Sean Elliott scored 25 points and Steve Kerr hit five triples in helping Arizona to a 99-79 win.
The teams traded baskets for the opening 10 minutes before the Wildcats put together a 28-15 run to take the lead for good. Still, Iowa threatened to make it a game with a 11-2 run late in the first half and only trailed 38-34 at the intermission.
A 15-6 Arizona run to open the second half, however, put them up 53-40 with 16:00 to play and the Hawkeyes never got within single-digits the rest of the way. The Wildcats scored 61 points over the final 20:00.
Armstrong kept Iowa in the contest with 27 points and seven assists but he needed 21 shot attempts and turned the ball over a game-high five times. Horton, who entered the game averaging 11.3 points per game, added just four points on five attempts and fouled out in what was a frustrating affair for the Hawkeyes' star forward.
After scoring 100+ points in each of the first two rounds, the Hawkeyes mustered only 79 against the Wildcats and once again fell a weekend short of the Final Four. Arizona eventually advanced to the 1988 Final Four, falling to Oklahoma in the National Semifinals. Iowa, meanwhile, wouldn’t return to the Sweet Sixteen for another 11 years.
Coming up next, the finale in the series: Four points short of a Final Four, the '87 Hawkeyes' run is still the program's gold standard in the modern era.