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Kale Abrahamson, Aaron White

Iowa's Aaron White knocks the ball away from Northwestern's Kale Abrahamson during the second half of a Big Ten Tournament game Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Chicago. Iowa won 73-59. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO — Iowa brought more than a healthy Mike Gesell to the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

The Hawkeyes hit Northwestern with a healthy dose of defense and rebounding from the start, seizing control early and rolling to a 73-59 opening-round victory in front of a crowd of 19,667 at the United Center.

“We wanted to come out and take it to them right away,” guard Devyn Marble said. “We put them in a tough spot, forced them to play from behind, and that played right into our hands. We’re here to win this tournament. That’s our motivation.”

Melsahn Basabe helped set an early tone, grabbing seven of his 12 rebounds in the game’s first 4 minutes to help send the Hawkeyes on their way to an 11-0 lead that the Wildcats never caught.

“I thought our defense was outstanding at the start, and that was critical for us,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “It was something we had to have.”

The Hawkeyes played their way into an 8 p.m. quarterfinal today against third-seeded Michigan State by winning 48-31 on the boards and limiting the Wildcats to 36.7 percent shooting.

That was enough for sixth-seeded Iowa to overcome a late surge by Northwestern. After 

trailing by as many as 16 points, the Wildcats cut the deficit to 50-43 when Reggie Hearn scored two of his 19 points on a basket with 8 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.

Marble, who led three Hawkeyes in double figures with 19 points, and Eric May followed with 3-point baskets that allowed Iowa to regain a 56-43 edge with just under 7 minutes remaining.

“Northwestern’s not a team that will go away, and we knew at some point they would make a run,” May said. “We had to step up and answer.”

Gesell, who finished with 13 points in 23 minutes, including a 3-pointer that came after the Wildcats cut the Iowa edge to single digits midway through the second half, said timely responses were important.

“Earlier in the season, teams would make a run at us and we didn’t handle it as well as we could have,” Gesell said. “We handle those things now. We make the shot to answer their shot. We’re learning and getting better in those situations.”

The Wildcats pulled within single digits five times during the final minutes of the game, but were turned away each time by either a basket or free throws despite Iowa’s

9-for-32 shooting in the second half and nine missed free throws.

“We responded, and that’s big,” McCaffery said. “I liked the way we approached this game. It was the kind of start we hoped to get off to here.”

And that started at the beginning.

By the time Nikola Cerina scored Northwestern’s first basket of the game with 12:32 remaining in the half, Iowa (21-11) had scored the game’s first 11 points. The Wildcats, who missed their first seven shots, also struggled to deal with the chaos Basabe was caused on the boards.

“I came out and tried to be active, tried to make some things happen,” Basabe said. “We wanted to send a message here that we aren’t just here to try to win a game or two.

“We want to win it all, and that started with the effort we had here.”

Northwestern coach Bill Carmody wasn’t in a position to dispute that. He burned four timeouts in the first half, hoping to spark his team and slow the Hawkeyes.

Northwestern (13-19) failed on both fronts as Iowa built a 34-22 halftime lead. Carmody burned his final timeout of the game 51 seconds into the second half after Iowa scored three quick points.