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NEW YORK, NY Iowa's team captain covered himself with ice packs after the program's biggest basketball victory in recent memory.
Senior Eric May, Iowa's leader and catalyst, had ice wrapped around his back and both knees in the wake of Iowa's 71-60 win Tuesday against Maryland. The fluid and powerful athletic ability he displayed with a thunderous dunk midway early in the second half faded along with his adrenaline.
But the aches and pains he accumulated over four years of college basketball will subside between alternating doses of ice and Icy Hot. The Hawkeyes face Baylor (22-14) for the NIT championship Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Then it's over for May.
Three years removed from the worst season in Iowa history, May now has the team poised to finish among its best. At 25-12, Iowa has tied the school's second-most single-season victories. One more win and the Hawkeyes are below only the vaunted 1986-87 squad that won 30.
"It's the most fun I've had in my life," May said. "It's unbelievable."
May was vital to Iowa's victory against Maryland. He scored 12 points, dished five assists, pulled down four rebounds and grabbed three steals. He played 36 minutes, held Maryland top scorer Dez Wells to nine points and didn't commit a turnover.
"He's been playing like that all year long," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "You know, I kept looking, I've got to get him out, but I just didn't feel like we could take him out. Defensively, offensively, he did everything right."
May gave the Hawkeyes a 12-point lead early in the second half with three perfect plays in succession. He knocked down a jumper with 16:40 left in game, then got back on defense and stole the ball from Pe'Shon Howard at mid-court. May streaked unabated for a powerful two-handed dunk to push Iowa up 12.
Later, with Iowa leading by six, May rebounded a Wells miss and was fouled with 2:22 left. He hit both free throws to boost Iowa ahead eight. Two possessions later, Iowa worked the shot clock down. May then drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put Iowa up nine.
"Eric's basket was the one," McCaffery said. "That was it. When that went in, it was over. We go up nine under a minute. I think that was pretty much it."
"That play kind of broke down, and Zach (McCabe) came out and set a great ball screen, had a great read, and it was wide open," May said. "I was confident at that point, shot clock was going down, (I) needed to take the shot, and it felt good leaving."
May's career was filled with tough moments, which makes this season so much sweeter. Iowa finished 10-22 his freshman season, and Todd Lickliter was fired. The Hawkeyes were 11-20 his sophomore season and he suffered a groin injury that limited his minutes. Last year Iowa improved to 18-17 but May injured his back and barely could contribute.
While May's body at times failed him, his work ethic never wavered. He organized summer pick-up games, and demanded players arrived at workouts and the summer Prime Time League on time. Iowa guard Devyn Marble said May made sure "guys were accountable."
"There were some uneasy times where people wouldn't have blamed me for walking away from this," May said. "That would have been the easy route. I didn't take that. I believe in the Hawkeyes. That's what I believe in, that's what I'm a apart of.
"I'm a Hawkeye for life. To bring this back is special."
May's leadership transitioned into the season. He set the tone in workouts and conditioning. He was solid and reassuring on the court. He better understood his role and limited his mistakes. He's had only 23 turnovers to 68 assists this year. He's played at least 20 minutes in each of the last 12 games.
"I'll tell you what, we have one of the greatest captains around," McCaffery said. "You don't win 25 games without phenomenal senior leadership. We've got a great junior class that we rely on, but there's only one captain of the ship, and he's sitting right here on my left."
Thursday, May's Iowa career will end regardless of the outcome. He'll peel off his No. 25 jersey for the final time and prepare for graduation and his professional future. It's bittersweet to say the least.
"It's hard to think about that because you don't want to," May said. "It's going to be emotional hanging it up. I think just for that, I'm going to leave it all on the court Thursday night hopefully that's my legacy. Leaving it out all on the court. Don't save anything."
He never has. He never will.