IOWA CITY, Iowa — The last player striding into the Iowa locker room Thursday night was the first player an entire team eagerly wanted to greet.
When Matt Gatens finally found his way inside after wading through a mass of student court-stormers, his teammates collectively hoisted him over their shoulders, drowning the room with cheers to celebrate his performance. It was a fitting parallel on a night in which Gatens carried the Hawkeyes on his own broad shoulders for 40 minutes with a shooting display for the ages.
Gatens, the Hawkeyes’ senior captain, drilled seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 33 points to light a flame under his team, as Iowa staved off No. 16 Wisconsin 67-66 in Carver Hawkeye-Arena on a night dubbed “Matt Gatens Bobblehead Night.”
He didn’t need the bobbleheads, handed out to the first 2,000 fans, to serve as extra incentive. The Iowa City native, playing just a few miles from home, is attempting to will his team to a postseason tournament of some kind for the first time since 2006. And in the process, he’s showing himself to be one of the best players in the Big Ten that most people haven’t yet noticed.
No matter the defender on Thursday night, Gatens used his 6-foot-5 frame to shake free and shoot over the top. He scored on pull-ups, fadeaways and even double-clutch jumpers.
It was a performance that left Iowa coach Fran McCaffery searching for the right superlatives.
“That was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen,” McCafery said. “It really was. Right from the beginning. The first two he made, he got it off so quick. They were on him. He just pulled the trigger, and once he got going, he was on fire.”
Gatens buried 12 of 18 field goals, including 7 of 10 3-point tries, although it certainly didn’t come as a shock to a Wisconsin team that ranks as one of the best defensive units in the nation.
Just four days earlier, Gatens set a career high with 30 points in Iowa’s 78-66 victory against then-No. 18 Indiana and drilled 7 of 10 3s in that game, too.
“If he was going to make shots, we wanted them to be tough 2s,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “He’s playing really well. And we knew it. It’s not like we were surprised. You’ve got to give a guy credit when he can knock those kinds of shots down.
“There were a lot of up hands. It wasn’t hand down, man down. It was some tough shots.”
Gatens’ 33 points were the most scored by a Wisconsin opponent since Davidson’s Stephen Curry tallied 33 points in the Sweet 16 of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
At one point on Thursday, Gatens had made 12 consecutive 3-pointers dating back to last Sunday’s game against Indiana. He buried his last seven against the Hoosiers and the first five against the Badgers.
“I was just watching from the 3-point line, not even trying to get the offensive rebound because I knew it was going in,” Iowa forward Aaron White said. “It really is unbelievable. I’ve never seen something like this, never even watched it on TV. But to be on the same floor with him, how well he’s playing right now, it’s unbelievable.”
When Gatens drilled a 3-pointer with 9:10 remaining in the second half for a 61-50 Iowa lead, he had scored more than half of his team’s points with 31. The bucket also brought a loud refrain from the student section: “You can’t stop him. Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap.”
Nobody on Wisconsin could argue that point.
“I was always told growing up to shoot to get hot, shoot to stay hot,” Gatens said. “That’s the mentality you’ve got to have. You’re letting your team down if you don’t keep shooting. You’ve got to keep firing away while you’re feeling it and hopefully I’ll keep feeling it the rest of the year.”
With Iowa’s lead in double digits, the Hawkeyes slowed the pace of play, and Gatens’ touches were limited. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s when Wisconsin made its run, slicing the lead down to two in the final seconds.
But with 3.8 seconds remaining and Iowa clinging to a 65-63 edge, it was Gatens who coolly buried two free throws to salvage a victory and a season sweep of the Badgers. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor then made a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer to account for the final margin before the Iowa student section stormed the court and swallowed up Gatens, basking in the afterglow of his performance.
Iowa, which improved to 15-13 (7-8 in Big Ten play), hasn’t won more than 15 games since 2007. Now that the Hawkeyes are playing respectable basketball, McCaffery believes Gatens, who averages 15.5 points per game, will receive the credit he truly deserves.
“Because of him, the team is doing better, and they’re going to start talking about us more,” McCaffery said. “Matt is making a name for himself as somebody to be considered to be drafted (in the NBA). He’s certainly making a push to be all league.”
There is no telling whether Gatens will continue his marvelous shooting streak in the Hawkeyes’ final three regular season games, or if he can push his team to a miraculous run through the Big Ten Tournament.
Given his recent performances, however, Gatens isn’t going to bet against it.
“It feels great to be going out on a high note,” Gatens said. “But it’s far from over.”