IOWA CITY — With four or five minutes remaining in Sunday’s game quite a few of the Iowa fans in Carver-Hawkeye Arena got up out of their seats and began trudging for the exits, heads down, shoulders slumped, features furrowed into frowns.
Their team trailed a not-so-imposing Northwestern team by 15 points and nothing seemed to be going right. The Hawkeyes were missing layups. The visiting Wildcats were banking in off-balance 3-point attempts. There didn’t seem to be any reason to hang around.
They should have stayed.
They could have watched Jordan Bohannon score all 15 of his points in the final six minutes and swish in a 3-point field goal with 0:00.6 showing on the clock to help the Hawkeyes steal an improbable 80-79 victory over the Wildcats.
“It didn’t look like it was going to happen today,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery admitted. “But I kept looking up there, saying ‘There’s enough time.’’’
Just barely enough.
Northwestern made a handful of late mistakes against the Iowa press and missed a few free throws in the final minute to leave the door ajar for what a few minutes earlier seemed impossible. When Vic Law, who led the Wildcats with 24 points, missed the second of two free throws with 10.8 seconds remaining, it left Northwestern holding a 79-77 lead.
The Wildcats were called for a kicked ball with three seconds remaining and while the officials looked at a video replay, McCaffery set up a final play that included four options. It was just a matter of Connor McCaffery making the right decision on the inbounds pass.
“It’s one of those things where if it ends the way it did, you know Jordan is going to make the shot,’’ coach McCaffery said.
Bohannon caught the pass near the top of the key, took one dribble and fired up a fallaway shot that hit nothing but net, then ran over and slapped high-fives with several of the spectators who had stayed.
Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon caught a long inbounds pass and fired up a futile 25-foot shot that kicked off the back rim as time expired.
“Any time we have an opportunity like that I want the ball in my hands,’’ said Bohannon who had a similar game Thursday at Indiana, scoring 11 of his 25 points in the final 90 seconds of an Iowa victory.
“I knew before the ball even left my hand that I was going to make it,’’ he said of Sunday’s game-winner.
As in many recent games, the 6-foot-1 junior didn’t really contribute a great deal until later in the game.
“You’ve got to give Northwestern credit because they really made me work,’’ he said. “I struggled in the first half and even in the beginning and middle of the second half. I just had to stay optimistic.’’
He got plenty of help from his teammates. Joe Wieskamp fired in 21 points for the Hawkeyes (19-5, 8-5 Big Ten), including a crucial 3-point field goal with Law in his face and a baseline drive in the final minutes.
“We just executed really well late game …’’ Wieskamp said. “For the most part we just kept fighting. That’s the biggest thing. We didn’t give up.’’
Tyler Cook finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds and Isaiah Moss contributed 16 points.
Northwestern (12-11, 3-9 Big Ten) came into the game dead last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, but the Wildcats ended up shooting a season-best 51.8 percent. They had shot 30.8 percent in the three previous games.
Law, a fifth-year senior who was shooting 28 percent in Big Ten play, led a spirited charge in the first half, scoring 19 of his points before halftime to stake the Wildcats to a 41-35 lead.
With 16:40 to go in the second half, McCaffery benched all of his starters except Cook and shouted that his players weren’t playing hard enough. The defense picked up after that but the Hwkeyes failed to capitalize, going nearly five minutes without scoring.
The Northwestern lead peaked at 72-57 with 4:30 remaining.
The comeback began slowly, with five free throws: One by Cook and two each by Wieskamp and Bohannon.
Bohannon hit a 3-pointer with 2:48 remaining and after a Ryan Taylor tip-in, Bohannon and Wieskamp made back-to-back 3s, followed by that Wieskamp baseline drive that trimmed the deficit to 76-73 with 43 seconds left.
Pardon made two free throws, Bohannon scored on a drive, A.J. Turner missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Moss tossed in a short jumper and Law made his one free throw, setting the stage for Bohannon’s final heroics.
Cook said there was as much a sigh of relief when it was over as a celebration.
“We knew that team played well enough to win that game ...’’ he said. “We knew we kind of got away with one.’’
McCaffery said he thought the Hawkeyes’ activity in their press in those final minutes was the best it has been all season and Northwestern coach Chris Collins figured his team panicked a little against that pressure.
“Even still, the 3 Bohannon hit on the far side across from their bench (with 1:25 to go) was about 30 feet,'' Collins said. "The 3 Wieskamp hit in front of their bench was a very difficult shot and then there was the last one. Three incredible 3s to win by one. You have to tip your hat to them for that.’’
Bohannon said he thought it was a game the Hawkeyes would have lost in past seasons. Cook agreed with that.
“Last year we might have mailed it in, especially when those fans started leaving with about four minutes to go and we were down 15,’’ he said.