IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa and its success-starved fans have embraced the National Invitation Tournament with unbridled passion and intensity.
The Hawkeyes fed off the enthusiasm of a sellout crowd — a rarity for March’s second-biggest tournament — and looked intent on reaching the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
Devyn Marble scored 24 points with six assists and four steals, Aaron White added 11 with 13 rebounds andIowa cruised past Indiana State 68-52 in the opening round of the NIT on Wednesday night.
Melshan Basabe had nine points and eight boards for the Hawkeyes (22-12), who won a home game in the NIT for the second straight season.
“Devyn really had to do a lot. He just keeps getting better. He’s playing as well as anybody in the country right now, without a doubt,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Iowa will host Stony Brook in the second round on Friday night. A win over the Seawolves, surprising victors at UMass, puts the Hawkeyes within a win of the semifinals in New York.
Iowa shook off a sluggish start with a 19-4 run to open the second half. Playing before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 15,000, the Hawkeyes maintained a comfortable lead the rest of the way.
Justin Gant had 16 points to lead Indiana State (18-15), which was playing in the NIT for the first time since 1978.
“In the second half, we got all out of whack. We thought we were going make it a pickup game,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “Just turned it over and turned it over.”
Iowa went to the Big Ten tournament last weekend hoping that two wins and a trip to the semifinals might be enough for its first NCAA bid in seven years.
The Hawkeyes, like had they had all year, came up agonizingly short.
Iowa lost to Michigan State 59-56, its fourth league defeat by three points or fewer. Had the Hawkeyes won any of those games, they likely would have earned a trip to the NCAA tournament instead of a second consecutive NIT berth.
For nearly 20 minutes, the Hawkeyes looked like they had a conference tournament hangover. They missed 13 of their first 16 shots and fell behind by eight points.
After a mini-rally to go ahead 31-30 at halftime, Iowa took off.
A layup and dunk off of the fast break by Marble helped make it 44-34 Hawkeyes. Zach McCabe hit two straight 3s, and Josh Oglesby followed with one of his own to put Iowa ahead 50-34.
No one but Gant had more than six points for Indiana State, which shot just 4 of 17 from 3-point range.
“I think you see some teams that ... don’t want to be in this tournament. They don’t play with the focus and determination that you should,” White said. ‘I don’t think anyone on this team did that.”
If Iowa’s fans were upset about an NCAA snub, they sure didn’t act that way.
The Hawkeyes sold out Carver-Hawkeye Arena in about 40 hours and drew the largest NIT crowd since nearly 17,000 saw Creighton host Kentucky in 2009.
“I think they love watching this team play. They’ve enjoyed watching them work,” McCaffery said. “We keep battling. We keep fighting. I think that’s what our fans appreciate. They also appreciate the unselfish nature of our team.”
The Sycamores held out hopes for an NCAA bid of their own after notching wins over Ole Miss, Miami, Creighton and at Wichita State. But Indiana State lost six of its last eight and stumbled to an NIT berth for the first time since the Larry Bird-led Sycamores made back-to-back appearances in 1977-78.
“We told our guys that if we want to be the type of team that’s going to contend for Missouri Valley championships, this is the type of place you have to come win. This is the type of team you’ve got to come beat.”