It figures that a Big Ten Tournament championship 16 years in the making would be so... sweet.
If you didn't believe this team is special, it's time to believe. Iowa ground out its toughest win of the season, beating Purdue 75-66 to claim the Big Ten Tournament championship. To call this a "team win" would be underselling it; Iowa needed 12 players just to get through the first half, and guys like Josh Ogundele and Payton Sandfort ended up being the difference between today's confetti bath and another dream denied.
There's plenty of reasons why Iowa shouldn't have won this game. The Hawkeyes lost both regular-season matchups with the Boilermakers. Purdue had fresher legs as a double-bye team and out-rebounded Iowa 48-30. The Hawkeyes shot just 28% from deep and missed eight of their 23 free throws. Keegan Murray had a pedestrian-by-his-standards 19 points on 6-for-16 shooting. Iowa needed 14 minutes of court time from Ogundele and Riley Mulvey. Riley Mulvey!
But the one overriding factor of it all? This Iowa team is tough, mentally and physically. The Hawkeyes logged 13 steals on 17 Purdue turnovers, and Joe Toussaint hounded Jaden Ivey* into five of those turnovers and 1-for-8 shooting from deep. And every time Purdue tried to make a charge in the second half, Iowa had buckets waiting.
*Random aside on Ivey: dude is absolutely going to be a star in the NBA — think Ja Morant but 20 pounds more muscle. He also had an awfully painful day, hitting the deck several times without contact. Didn't appear to be anything injurious but he's probably spending the next couple days in an ice bath. Also, barring an improbable NCAA title game rematch, thank goodness Iowa doesn't have to guard him ever again.
Two key stretches of this game highlighted Iowa's tenacity. Iowa struggled mightily with its jumpshots early in the game. Instead of reacting with frustration or selfish play, the team ratcheted up its defensive intensity, forcing turnovers on seven of nine Purdue possessions and forcing Zach Edey to the bench in frustration. The delayed double-teams completely disrupted Purdue's entry-pass offense and helped Iowa get its own offensive rhythm established. That is winning basketball. That's the way champions play.
Second, after the Hawkeyes reestablished an eight-point lead late in the second half, Purdue stormed back with seven straight points in 42 seconds, including a physics-defying dead bounce off the back iron for a three-pointer. The partisan crowd was roaring, and all of a sudden Iowa had just a one-point lead to protect with 3:13 to play. Connor McCaffery responded with an and-one jumper (!) late in the shot clock to push the lead back to four, Iowa forced four straight empty possessions on the other side of the court, and the game was never again in doubt.
Again: this is what championships are made of. Iowa had plenty of valid excuses if Purdue had completed its rally and won the game. But the Hawkeyes dug deep, found a way to retake control, and earned their first BTT title since most of these guys* were in preschool.
*2006, aka Jordan Bohannon's freshman season.
We can't say enough about how proud we are of these players and these coaches. Fran McCaffery has been at Iowa for 12 seasons now, and while it hasn't always been a smooth ride, seeing him finally get to join Lisa Bluder in cutting down some nets is so rewarding. This has been his best season of coaching at Iowa, even better than taking the 2012 team to the NIT out of nowhere, and it's so great that there's some hardware to show for it now.
And what can you say about how this team responded to moving Tony Perkins into the starting lineup in February? Joe Toussaint could have pouted his way through the rest of the year, relegated back into a bench role. Instead he responded unselfishly to his new role and played some of the best basketball of his career down the stretch. Perkins has been a revelation in his new role, and his future looks as bright as ever in the script gold.
And then, of course, there's Keegan Murray. The silent assassin. Two years removed from being an afterthought as a recruit, one year from being one of the best eighth-men in the Big Ten. Now a legitimate candidate for National Player of the Year. We knew he'd be good this season. We knew he was special as soon as the games were underway. But somehow, he's gotten better as the season's gone on, playing some of his own best ball down the stretch too. Nobody's laughing at the Grant Hill comparisons anymore.
Kris Murray might be in the middle of making a similar jump as his brother, but a year deferred. We'll gladly take him being a focal point next season. Connor McCaffery grew into his new role and developed a lethal outside shot out of thin air, and if this is his last ride it's been great. He and his brothers are fighters, and they're consummate Hawkeyes.
And Jordan Bohannon. Man. This season must feel like a dream come true. Playing a sixth year, breaking the Big Ten record for threes, getting to play the hero/villain in the closing minutes of the semifinal and cutting down a net the next day? Couldn't be happier for him.
They'll be raising a banner for this team at Carver-Hawkeye in due time, and forevermore we'll get to see this team honored as Big Ten Tournament champions. Absolutely, positively, 1,000% earned. What a run, what a team.
Now it's time to give them another reason to hoist a banner right next to it. Let's dance.
GO IOWA AWESOME.