Bucky O’Connor’s legendary squad took a school-record 17-game winning streak into the NCAA championship game against San Francisco in Evanston, Ill. Bill Russell and the Dons snapped that streak, 83-71.
As the 1986-87 season got into the heart of Big Ten play, that 17-game winning streak was in jeopardy. Iowa was 15-0 and ranked second nationally, but the Big Ten’s version of Murderers’ Row awaited in a brutal nine-day stretch: at No. 8 Illinois, at No. 5 Purdue, No. 3 Indiana at home.
The 1955-56 team had five players score in double figures that season – Bill Logan, Carl Cain, Bill Seaberg, Bill Schoof and Sharm Scheuerman. The 1986-87 team had five players scoring in double figures – Roy Marble, B.J. Armstrong, Jeff Moe, Brad Lohaus and Kevin Gamble – heading into the Jan. 14 game against Illinois at the Assembly Center in Champaign, Ill.
Iowa Coach Tom Davis knew he had a special team, but he says 25 years later that he never thought they were unbeatable.
“I don’t think there are many coaches that think that way,” Davis said. “The assistant coach would give you the next scouting report after a game ended. It was always sitting there. Here’s the next opponent. You’d get on the bus or the plane, and there it was.”
This was a Hawkeye team that lived on the edge. Five times in those first 15 games, Iowa trailed by 12 points or more before rallying to win.
Illinois, 12-2, made it six times. Coach Lou Henson’s team scored 52 first-half points, much to the delight of the sellout Assembly Hall crowd of 16,666. Illinois increased its 17-point lead to 22, at 61-39 with 16 minutes 10 seconds to play. Over.
Did you say over? Not quite. Iowa tried to rally, but still trailed by 15 points with 9:45 remaining. The Illini got hesitant on offense, and the Hawkeyes kept attacking.
“That game let us know we were never out of ballgames,” said Kevin Gamble, a senior guard on that Iowa team.
Armstrong actually had a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation, but missed a 12-footer. The Hawkeyes prevailed in overtime, 91-88, Lohaus providing the final two points on free throws with :07 to play.
“We got down bit and just kept clawing away, and got back in it,” said Lohaus, who finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds.
The victory was especially sweet for Iowa starters Ed Horton and Gamble, who both grew up in Springfield, Ill.
“People around here talk about that game all the time,” said Horton, who still lives in Springfield. “Illinois had a very good team. And for us to come into Champaign and come back from a big deficit, we knew we had a good team.
Gamble scored just six points in that victory, but Davis remembers that game as the night when Gamble turned it up a notch on the defensive end.
“That’s the night he stepped it up and showed what a great defensive player he was,” Davis said. “I remember him making some really big plays in the open court on the defensive end. More than anything, that’s what led him to as long a run in the NBA as he had (10 seasons). There are a lot of guys who can shoot it and score it. But there aren’t a lot of guys who can do both.”
Iowa’s next game was at Purdue, five nights later. On the day of that game, a Monday, the Hawkeyes moved to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history. Iowa replaced Nevada-Las Vegas, who had been knocked off by Oklahoma.
No. 1 = big-headed Hawkeyes?
“If they were I couldn’t sense it, even though they got a lot of attention,” Davis said. “We had some good, level-headed seniors in Gamble, Lohaus and (Gerry) Wright, so I had some good leadership.”
Purdue was 13-1, and poised to ruin Iowa’s coronation as the nation’s best team. That looked even more likely when Marble, the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer, scratched himself in the right eye and was knocked out of the game midway through the first half.
But Iowa prevailed, 70-67, against a tough-as-nails Boilermaker team coached by Gene Keady.
“Beating a Gene Keady team in West Lafayette was no minor achievement,” said Al Lorenzen, a junior forward on that team. “I just think we started to understand, “Hey, we’ve got a shot here.’ You start to let things creep into your mind like, “We’re good enough to win it all.’ ”
Iowa returned home for a duel with No. 3 Indiana. The Hawkeyes played their first home game as the nation’s top-ranked team, with a chance to win a school-record 18th game. It was not the first time Indiana coach Bob Knight and Davis had crossed paths.
Davis was an assistant at American U. when he first met Knight, the head coach at Army. Their teams scrimmaged before the season started.
Turn the calendar ahead to the spring of 1982. Davis was the head coach at Boston College, and thinking about making a job change. The Stanford position opened up during the season. Davis let Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger know he was interested.
“About two weeks later Bob Knight calls me,” Davis said. “We had never talked on the phone. I thought that was strange. I asked him what was going on. He said, “I’m supposed to talk to you about what it will take for you to take the Stanford job.”
Geiger had helped Knight’s oldest son, Tim, get into Stanford. Knight was paying back the favor.
Knight asked Davis about the particulars of his Boston College contract.
“He said, “I’m supposed to draw up your contract, or words to that effect, and make it so ironclad that when the season is over, and you go out there to interview and they offer you the job, you can’t say no,’ ” Davis said.
His final season at Boston College ended one game from the Final Four, and Davis moved West. His head manager that first season at Stanford was Tim Knight.
Five seasons later, Davis and Bob Knight squared off in a Top 10 duel at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa prevailed, 101-88, the first team to score 100 points on a Knight-coached squad.
“Coach Knight was more conservative, grinding it out,” Wright recalled. “Tom didn’t stop fast breaking, didn’t stop swinging. The team that quit swinging was the team that was going to go down.”
A 16-2 Iowa run midway through the second half gave the Hawkeyes a cushion they took to the final horn. Eighteen games, a school record 18-0.
Steve Alford , who would replace Davis as Iowa coach after the 1998-99 season, scored 21 points in that loss.
“When he was coaching here, I’d always tell him, “The bottom line, I’m telling you right now, is that we put a whipping on you boys,’ ” Marble said.
Illinois. Purdue. Indiana.
“A couple of games jump out at me from that season,” said Gary Close, an assistant to Davis and now in the same position at Wisconsin. “The Indiana game at home. The first team to score 100 (on Knight), the atmosphere. That was a huge game for us. And the game at Purdue, when Roy got hurt. That was a terrific win. We lost him early and found a way to survive. Those two games jump out.”
Three straight victories, all against Top 10 teams. Two of them on the road.
“People just don’t handle teams in that order,” Lorenzen said. “That was special.”
Two days later, unranked Ohio State came to Carver-Hawkeye Arena and ended Iowa’s winning streak, 80-76. Dennis Hopson scored 36 points, his 12th 30-point game of the season.
“Hopson was at the top of his game,” Horton recalled. “He came into Carver and really put on a show. It was a wake-up call. Ohio State really opened our eyes that day.”
As fate would have it, the Buckeyes were coached by Gary Williams. Davis was a volunteer assistant at Maryland when Williams played for the Terrapins. Later, Davis became the freshman coach at Maryland and Williams was his assistant.
When Davis got his first head coaching position, at Lafayette College in 1971, he took Williams as his assistant coach with one requirement – Williams also had to be the school’s head soccer coach. When Davis left for Boston College in 1977, Williams joined him there for a season. Williams later replaced Davis at Boston College when Davis took the Stanford job.
So it was Williams who handed Davis his first loss as Iowa coach.
“We were so fired up for Indiana,” Gamble said. “Reaching the 100-point barrier. Then we had a little letdown.”
Iowa would drop to No. 2 in the poll the following week, getting replaced by North Carolina, and remained in the Top 10 for the rest of the season.
The Hawkeyes would finish the Big Ten season 14-4, good for third place, and 30-5 overall. Indiana got the last laugh. The Hoosiers beat Iowa in the regular-season rematch in Bloomington, 84-75, and went on to win the national title by beating UNLV in the semifinals and Syracuse in the championship game.
Iowa’s season ended one game from the Final Four, a 84-81 loss to UNLV at the Kingdome in Seattle, Wash. The Hawkeyes had a 58-42 halftime lead, but the Rebels turned the tables with a 24-2 second-half run.
In addition to setting school records for consecutive victories, 18, and victories in a season, 30, Iowa led the nation in rebounding. Davis was voted both Big Ten coach of the year and Associated Press National Coach of the Year.
A lot of good memories. But that UNLV loss still haunts members of that Hawkeye team.
“”I still haven’t watched it again to this day, 25 years later,” Moe said.
DES MOINES REGISTER GAME STORIES
Game story from Nov. 29, 1986 (Alaska-Anchorage)
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball