IOWA CITY, Ia. — Never has a Hawkeye basketball player been more deserving of his own bobblehead.
It was Matt Gatens night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, in more ways than one. First the university passed out Gatens bobbleheads as the fans entered the building. Then the senior from Iowa City showed Wisconsin the door.
And most of us thought Sunday was Gatens Night. A career-high 30 points to help the Hawkeyes beat No.18 Indiana. A career-high 33 points against the No.16 Badgers four days later.
What next? Thirty-six at Illinois on Saturday? Forty-six at the Big Ten tournament?
For a while after the opening tip Thursday night, Gatens was scoring more than a point a minute. He scored from the left side, from the right, from the top of the key. He did it standing still, lurching forward, falling back, heels in the air, into the Iowa bench.
After hitting his first five in a row, it almost felt as if Gatens was letting up when he settled for two points.
And it wasn’t as if nobody wearing red was playing defense. This was Wisconsin, after all, which isn’t only about field position on fall Saturdays. This is the Wisconsin that leads the nation in too many defensive categories to mention, the one that rolled into Iowa City with eight victories in its last 10 games.
The Badgers had just won their 20th game. They’re going to the NCAA Tournament again. They aren’t intimidated on the road.
You knew Gatens wouldn’t end up with 60 points, but the thought crossed your mind as he stretched the school record for consecutive threes to 12 and did it with the ease of somebody dropping coins in a parking meter.
Like Sunday, he made 7 of 10 from beyond the arc. But this time, the record-keepers were talking about him in the same breath with notable former Hawkeyes like Greg Brunner, Don Nelson, Andre Woolridge and Adam Haluska.
Gatens even squeezed himself into the same sentence with stars of the past who didn’t play for Iowa. His point total Thursday night, for example, was the most by a Wisconsin opponent since Davidson’s Stephen Curry scored 33 in the 2008 Sweet 16. And it was the second most by a Big Ten player in league play this season.
Friends, family and everyday fans sometimes attribute much of Gatens’ improvement this season to a trimmer physique. It’s funny how the more Gatens lights it up, the heavier he used to be.
While there might be some connection, the average civilian on Weight Watchers should not expect similar results. This transformation was more about the young man’s depth than his weight.
It took him the better part of four seasons, but with these last two historic outings, Gatens made himself a permanent part of Hawkeye lore.
Until this week, he was destined to be remembered as the sweet-shooting local kid, a nice player who had the misfortune of showing up when the party was over, still managing to earn some all-conference mention while not going down as anyone’s favorite Hawkeye.
That changed Thursday night when Gatens became everyone’s Hawkeye of the moment. When the noisiest crowd to inhabit Carver-Hawkeye Arena in years spilled onto the court after Iowa’s 67-66 victory, the students hoisted Gatens (and Melsahn Basabe and Devyn Marble) onto their shoulders.
Fran McCaffery, the second-year Iowa coach, stood by the baseline nearest the locker room tunnel and took it in. It was part of the reason he showed up here, too.
When the team edged their way through the crowd and into the locker room, Gatens’ teammates lifted him off the floor a second time.
“As happy as I’m sure he is,” McCaffery said, “they were more happy for him. To me, it showed an incredible level of respect for a guy, how hard he’s worked, his professionalism, his captaincy, how he leads. That’s the way it should be.”
Admission for the students was free on this night, which never would have happened when empty seats were hard to come by and NCAA tournament appearances weren’t.
But their presence contributed mightily to the victory. That’s as it should be, too.
The 14,248 total represents the second largest home crowd of the season. Ohio State was a sell-out, but most of the fans had lost interest long before it was over.
You tend to forget what kind of difference a living, breathing, pulsating student section can make in Iowa City. It was good to be reminded.
Register sports columnist Marc Hansen can be reached at (515) 284-8534 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/marcdmr.