Eric May has endured some of the lowest points in the history of the Iowa men’s basketball program.
He suffered through back-to-back losing seasons as a freshman and sophomore. He also has struggled with injuries and shooting slumps and dealt with a coaching change after his freshman season.
But May’s resiliency is being rewarded with him playing a key role in Iowa’s quest to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
May was among five Iowa players who scored in double figures during Sunday’s 72-51 come-from-behind victory over Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He also led Iowa with seven rebounds and he had two of his team’s 12 steals while playing 24 minutes off the bench.
“The guy is just playing so well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of the 6-foot-5 May. “He’s doing everything. He’s handling the ball. He’s making passes. He’s in the press. He’s rebounding in traffic, hitting threes, dunking the ball, stealing the ball.
“He’s arguably playing better than anybody else we have right now.”
With just five regular-season games remaining, May is seeing his career flash before him as Iowa’s lone senior. The Dubuque native is determined to end his career in the NCAA Tournament, and his teammates are equally as determined to make it happen for him.
“We definitely want to get it done for him, too,” said freshman guard Mike Gesell, who finished with 11 points and four steals Sunday. “We want to make this (NCAA) Tournament for him. This is his last go-around. We want to make it special for him.”
Iowa has won three games in a row and improved to 17-9 overall and 6-7 in the Big Ten. Iowa’s next game is Thursday against Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. Minnesota fell to 18-8 overall and 6-7 in the conference despite bolting to a 21-5 lead Sunday.
Sunday’s game was Tubby Smith’s 729th as a college head coach. It now stands out for how quickly and how decisively the momentum shifted.
Minnesota guard Austin Hollins made three free throws to expand the lead to 21-5 with 12 minutes, 57 seconds left in the first half. Iowa then outscored the Gophers 28-9 for the remainder of the first half and led by as many as 23 points in the second half.
Iowa junior forward Zach McCabe triggered the comeback by making a 3-point basket from near the top of the key with 12:21 left in the first half and with the shot clock about to expire.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen such a dramatic turnaround in such a short time as a coach of any team I’ve had, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “It’s about as disappointing a loss as I’ve ever had.”
May helped key the comeback by grabbing five of his team-high seven rebounds in the first half. He then helped to expand the lead by scoring all 10 of his points in the second half. His first points came on a dunk while being fouled by Minnesota’s Oto Osenieks. May made the free throw to give Iowa a 45-35 lead with 12:04 left to play.
“It’s always good to get your first basket off a dunk,” May said. “It gets you going.”
May said one of the keys to the turnaround is that nobody panicked or quit hustling after the Gophers jumped to a 16-point lead.
“That’s the way we’ve been all year is never quit,” May said. “We don’t like to put ourselves in that hole. But it happens sometimes.
“And it says a lot about our team, what we are and how we came back and just played through that. That was huge for us.”
Minnesota, which defeated Iowa 62-59 Feb. 3 in Minneapolis, struggled on offense Sunday after the Hawkeyes switched to an aggressive zone defense. The Gophers committed 17 turnovers and only made 17-of-47 field-goal attempts, including 8-of-25 in the second half.
Minnesota barely needed seven minutes to score its first 21 points of the game. But then it took almost 28 minutes for the Gophers to score their next 21 points.
Center Elliott Eliason made a basket to cut Iowa’s lead to 59-42 with 5:26 left to play.
“The way we reacted to the zone and to the press with the turnovers, a lot of it went to Iowa,” Smith said. “They didn’t panic. They made the switch defensively and we didn’t respond. We didn’t make the coaching moves to get the guys in the right spot to do the things they had to do, and consequently, we turned it over and made bad plays.”
May, meanwhile, is just happy that he’s healthy and understands his role as a key contributor off the bench. Sunday’s game marked just the second time this season that May has scored in double figures. He scored 13 points during a 75-63 loss to Wichita State on Dec. 21.
“I’m playing my most consistent basketball and that’s what has allowed me to affect the game is just being solid and doing the little things and let the game come to me,” May said. “It’s not that there is no pressure or anything. I just do what I can do and I like that.”
McCaffery also likes it. He praised May for his perseverance and for understanding his role as a leader.
“I think it’s a guy who has tremendous character and work ethic and has figured it all out,” McCaffery said. “He’s been through a lot.”
May is proof that time, or the lack of it, is a powerful motivator.
“I don’t like to think about that, it’s hard to” May said of his Hawkeye career almost being over. “But it’s the truth. The games are limited. So I’m just doing everything I can to make us play as long as possible. I want to keep playing as far as we can. So that’s what I’m trying to bring every day.”
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball