CHICAGO - Forget about all that bubble talk. Devyn Marble and Iowa are focused on the Big Ten's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Hawkeyes moved one step closer to their goal when Marble scored 19 points in an important 73-59 victory over Northwestern in the first round of the conference tournament on Thursday night.
"I think that whatever a lot of people are thinking, we're just here to win a championship and that's been the goal and the task at hand," Marble said. "And tomorrow's just another chance and opportunity to keep going toward that goal. Today was a stepping stone, we took care of business and now it's on to the next."
Mike Gesell converted a clinching three-point play with 1:41 left and finished with 13 points as the Hawkeyes (21-11) won for the seventh time in nine games to continue a late-season push for spot in the field on Selection Sunday.
Iowa's third win this season against Northwestern likely won't help its case very much, but a victory over No. 8 Michigan State in the quarterfinals could go a long way to earning an at-large bid.
"I'm not foolish, I hear what everybody's saying about that particular game," Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery said. "To me, I am very comfortable with where our resume is right now. I think we deserve to be in. But, there are so many factors and I respect whatever the committee decides.
"The only thing that we can control is how we play tomorrow. That's how we're going to approach it. It's not something that we even talk about."
Reggie Hearn powered a late Northwestern rally after an awful start, scoring 14 of his 19 points in the second half. He drove inside to trim Iowa's lead to 50-43 with 8:27 left, but Marble and Gesell each hit a big 3-pointer to help the Hawkeyes hold on for their third consecutive victory.
"We came together for a few minutes there and got it to seven," said Alex Marcotullio, who had nine points for the Wildcats. "A couple of mishaps and they increased the lead. It was kind of deflating. It really hurt us."
Melsahn Basabe had 10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots for Iowa, which shot just 37.1 percent but enjoyed a 48-31 advantage on the boards.
Alex Olah scored 12 points for the Wildcats (13-19) and Tre Demps finished with 11.
"Getting in a hole like we did, it felt like we were trying to claw back most of the game," coach Bill Carmody said.
Northwestern dropped its last nine games of the season and 11 of 12 overall, putting Carmody's job in jeopardy after 13 years at the school. The Wildcats lost four players to season-ending injuries, but it was their worst record since they went 8-22 during the 2007-08 season.
"Jim Phillips and I will discuss this in the next couple days and go from there," Carmody said while talking about his athletic director. "We evaluate each year. It's no different from the way we go about our business. We'll get together soon."
Iowa opened the game with a 15-2 run, using its stifling defense to disrupt Northwestern's sets while keeping the Wildcats off the glass with a dominating rebounding effort. The Hawkeyes were working on a shutout before Nikola Cerina wriggled free for a layup with 12:32 left.
Boosted by a strong contingent of fans clad in yellow and black, Iowa kept up the pressure and put together a 14-2 spurt to open a 29-11 lead. Eric May capped the surge with a drive right down the middle of the lane and a big slam with 5:10 remaining.
"I thought tonight our defensive intensity at the start of the game was absolutely critical," McCaffery said. "It really got us going. They didn't score for a while. We got great play from a lot of different people, which is fairly typical of our team."
The Hawkeyes got a lift from the return of Gesell, who also had three assists and a steal. The freshman injured his right foot late last month.
Now they get another shot at Michigan State, which won 62-59 at Iowa on Jan. 10. The game was tied at 56 with 1:04 left, but Keith Appling made four free throws down the stretch to lead the Spartans to the victory.
"I think it's a big game just because it's the next one," Marble said. "But I think, like Eric said, we have come out and had a pretty decent, good season. But giving people reason to be excited about forthcoming games, and all we have to do is go out there and not disappoint."