COLUMBUS, Ohio — There were times in the first half Sunday when you began to wonder what was going on with Tyler Cook.
After being one of the most consistently productive players in the Big Ten most of the season, Iowa’s 6-foot-9 junior had hit a rough patch lately. He had averaged only 8 points per game in the previous five games and made just 15 of 49 shots from the field.
And then in the first half of the Hawkeyes’ game against Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA tournament, he looked even worse. He missed the only five shots he took, launching two airballs. He had two turnovers and one rebound.
Was he hurt? Was he sick? Was he already contemplating his NBA future?
But then suddenly in the second half, he was back to being Tyler Cook.
He ended up sparking what nearly became one of the most astonishing comebacks in NCAA tournament history. Iowa rallied from a 21-point halftime deficit — it trailed by as much as 25 earlier in the first half — to send the game to overtime before going down to an 83-77 loss to second-seeded Tennessee.
“I just felt like I let myself and my team down in the first half,’’ Cook admitted in a somber postgame locker room. “I didn’t have the energy I needed to have, wasn’t aggressive enough.
“I just wasn’t being who Tyler Cook is. I knew that if I was going to struggle, I was at least going to play my ass off in the second half.’’
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery admitted that one of the things he did at halftime was to challenge Cook to get back to being the player he had been for most of the season.
“I knew he was better than that,’’ McCaffery said.
Cook took the challenge to heart. The Hawkeyes opened the second half with a 16-4 outburst to slice the deficit to single digits and Cook either scored or assisted on every basket in that stretch. He was driving, dishing, dunking, doing all the spectacular things he normally does.
His teammates fed off his energy and before long everyone was playing with the same level of intensity.
“He’s our leader,’’ sophomore Luka Garza said. “He goes out there and gives it everything he’s got. We all knew he was due to get in the flow and start attacking the rim.’’
Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes weren’t quite able to finish the job. Cook missed a couple of free throws in overtime that really hurt.
The fact that they played so well in the second half against one of the best teams in the country didn't make the loss any easier to swallow.
“It takes a special kind of group to bounce back like that after being down 20-plus at halftime, to come back and fight the way we fought and get to overtime and give ourselves a chance to win the game,’’ Cook said. “That’s not easy to do. Not too many teams in the country could do that.’’
Cook said he sees a bright future for the Iowa program, which won nine more games than a year ago and got back into the NCAA tournament. He said the work ethic he sees on a daily basis is the reason.
“If I know these guys, I’ll bet somebody will be in the gym tomorrow morning,’’ he said. “That’s just who we are. That’s just the kind of stuff that we’re made of. I just wish people could have seen how much work was put in. Guys just really decided we weren’t going to have another 14-19 season.’’
One question, of course, is whether or not Cook will be back for his senior season to be a part of that bright future.
He went through the NBA Draft process last spring and apparently was close to staying in the draft rather than coming back to Iowa. Instead, he returned and emerged as one of the primary leaders in the program’s reversal of fortunes.
He couldn’t really say what his future plans are when asked about it following Sunday’s game.
“I’m a little bit emotionally overloaded right now,’’ he said. “I can’t even think straight. I’ll start thinking about that stuff later. For now, I feel like I need to celebrate the guys around me, the things we were able to accomplish this year.’’