COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amusement park rides often seem to save the biggest, wildest twists and turns until the very end, and it was that way with the roller-coaster ride that the Iowa basketball team went on this season.
That final stretch of track Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament’s South Regional at Nationwide Arena left just about everyone gasping, cringing and ultimately crying.
The Hawkeyes fell behind No. 2 seed Tennessee by as much as 25 points in the first half, then staged a second-half comeback that would have gone down as one of the greatest in NCAA tournament history had they been able to complete the job.
As it is, Tennessee and SEC player of the year Grant Williams took over in overtime to give the Volunteers an 83-77 victory and a berth in the Sweet 16 opposite Purdue on Thursday in Louisville.
But the Hawkeyes, who came up just short of their first Sweet 16 in 20 years, certainly made it difficult for them after a first half in which everything came pretty easily for the Volunteers.
“I’m just proud of the fight these guys showed,’’ said Iowa forward Nicholas Baer, who closed out his college career with the loss. “Anybody that knows this program knows there’s a lot of character in this room. I was just really proud of the way we came out and fought and executed to the end.’’
While it may have been the most heart-breaking game of Iowa’s season, junior guard Jordan Bohannon said that like most roller coaster rides, it also was fun.
“This is a game I’ll remember the rest of my life,’’ said Bohannon, who led the Hawkeyes with 18 points and became the school’s career leader in 3-point field goals in the first half. “Coach said he’d never seen a team fight back in the NCAA tournament the way we did. Against Tennessee, that’s hard to do with the way they play, with how physical they are and with how quick they play. We didn’t fold.’’
It would have been easy to do that after a first half in which Tennessee once led by as much as 25 points (44-19). It was 49-28 at halftime.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the start we wanted,’’ freshman Joe Wieskamp said. “We had a decision to make. We could either fold and hand it to them or we could fight back.’’
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said the halftime locker room was very calm. There was no screaming and yelling, no broken furniture.
Luka Garza, who scored 13 points in the loss, compared it to the timeout the Hawkeyes took when they fell behind Cincinnati 18-5 in the opening round of the tournament on Friday.
“In that timeout and in the locker room at halftime, you could tell something was about to happen,’’ he said. “All the guys were communicating with each other, believing in each other.’’
The Hawkeyes looked like a completely different team at the outset of the second half. Tyler Cook, who did not score in the first half, went into attack mode and scored Iowa’s first nine points of the half.
McCaffery said he felt the real key was defense. The Hawkeyes ended up holding one of the best offensive teams in the country to just 22 points in the second 20 minutes.
“They were in a very comfortable place offensively in the first half,’’ he said of the Volunteers. “We made it very uncomfortable for them in the second half, which I think gave us confidence in our offense.’’
The Hawkeyes gradually chipped away at the deficit, then strung together a 10-point run to make it 61-58 with 7 minutes, 23 seconds remaining. They finally tied the score at 67-67 with 2:39 to go on three free throws by Bohannon.
Tennessee surged back into a 71-67 lead but Isaiah Moss, who had 16 points for Iowa, scored on a drive and Wieskamp made two free throws to tie it at 71 with 20.8 seconds left.
The Volunteers’ Jordan Bone missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds and the game went to overtime.
That’s where Williams took over. He started the extra period with two free throws, fed Bone for a 3, then fired in a contested 12-foot jumper to make it 78-71.
The Hawkeyes got back within five points but Cook missed two foul shots with 20.9 seconds to go in the overtime and the Volunteers held on. Bone clinched it with two free throws with 0:09.5 remaining.
“Once it got to overtime, I thought we really responded the way we needed to,’’ Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “But it shouldn’t have gotten to that point. I think you’ve got to give all the credit to Iowa.’’
Williams and Admiral Schofield scored 19 points apiece for Tennessee (31-5). All but two of Schofield’s points came in the first 16 minutes when the Volunteers were rolling. Lamonte Turner added 15 points and Bone 14.
All five Iowa starters scored in double figures but the Hawkeyes (23-12) shot only 39 percent from the field and made just 7 of 21 3-points attempts two days after going 11 for 22.
“I don’t have any regrets,’’ Bohannon said. “I know from a team perspective, we gave it everything we had in that second half … We told each other we weren’t going to go out without a fight. We didn’t come this far to only come this far.’’
McCaffery said the execution wasn’t perfect but he had no problem with anything else his team did.
“What you hope you get is perfect effort and that’s what we got,’’ he said. “I think any time that happens, you just want to hug your guys and tell them how much you love them because you appreciate how hard it was to do what they did.’’