Iowa CITY, Iowa - Matt Gatens was the last Iowa player to leave the court Thursday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Fans, family and friends mobbed the sharp-shooter.
As he reached the tunnel, he stopped and walked over to the stands. He and the school's all-time leading scorer, Roy Marble Sr., locked in an embrace. While only lasting a second or two, it represented what Iowa hopes can connect generations of Iowa basketball.
Gatens really is doing his best to be the bridge from the good ole days when Marble Sr. was walking on air, through the Tom Davis Era past the lackluster run of Steve Alford and Todd Lickliter to what the Hawkeye faithful hopes is a fruitful future with Fran McCaffery.
After scoring a career-high 30 points Sunday in an upset of No. 18 Indiana, Gatens dropped 33 on No. 15 Wisconsin in a 67-66 win here Thursday. He enjoyed a stretch between those two games of 12 consecutive three-pointers made.
"One of the most incredible things I've ever seen, right from the beginning," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said.
If you've followed the Iowa program, you know that Gatens has given his heart and soul to the black and gold. Most of the time, the effort has ended in defeat. Seasons have finished with a whimper and empty stands.
Not this year. Not when he's a senior. Not when there's one last chance to dance in March. And, yes, any postseason for a guy that's worked this hard and who cares so much for this program would be worth at least a jig.
Iowa defeated its fourth ranked team this season in front of a raucous crowd. It swept Wisconsin in a season series for the first time since '95. The Hawkeyes are 7-8 in the Big Ten.
That might not seem very good to someone that doesn't follow the Big Ten. But when you consider where this program sat two years ago at the end of a three-year train wreck conducted by Todd Lickliter, the Hawkeyes have come forward light years.
McCaffery won't win coach of the year in the conference this season. Nobody is doing a better job than him, though, even if the Hawkeyes fail to win another league game.
McCaffery likely will remain the focus of this program for the foreseeable future. And if his popularity continues to grow, people can look back at these first two years as the foundation. Gatens is the foreman of that crew and he's leaving a legacy for his current teammates to follow and pass on.
"When he was the last one in (to the locker room) off the (court), they ran to him and lifted him up off the floor," McCaffery said. "As happy as I'm sure he is, they were more happy for him. To me, it showed an incredible level of respect for a guy; how hard he's worked, his professionalism, his captaincy, how he leads. That's the way it should be."
Gatens, who grew up in Iowa City the son of a former Hawkeye player (Mike Gatens), has put together the type of distinguishing performances fans can look back on and say, remember when Matt rained threes on Indiana and Wisconsin in back to back games.
We're talking 14 of 20 from beyond the arc here, folks. Defenders in his face, fading away, shooting daggers.
Perhaps Gatens' most impressive hoop on Thursday came on a pull-up jumper just inside of the foul line. He hung in the air, double-clutched while the defender drifted by him, and swished it through the net.
Friends and family were sporting "Gators Gang" T-Shirts on Thursday in recognition of the nickname he shares with his father. There were a lot of them.
As he came out of the locker room to hugs from that crew, Mike waited at the end of the line. He put his arm around his son and said simply, "I'm proud of you."
Star players come and go. Most of them are fondly remembered. There's something special about Gatens.
We just don't get a lot of kids that grow up in Iowa City and represent a program so well on and off the court. We talk a lot about athletes screwing up, but often ignore the good guys unless they're winning.
As much as Matt's performance meant to the Hawkeye fans who relish any opportunity to knock off Wisconsin, nobody had a bigger smile than Gatens. It was a night to remember, finally.