BY LUKE MEREDITH
AP Sports Writer
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Hawkeyes struggled to put away the Big Ten’s worst team on its home floor in a game it simply had to win.
Iowa survived thanks to a career night from Aaron White, a double-double from new starter Melsahn Basabe, and a whole bunch of free throws.
White had a career-high 27 points and Iowa beat Penn State 76-67 Thursday night, snapping a two-game losing streak.
Basabe had 10 points and 10 rebounds in his first start of the season for the Hawkeyes (14-7, 3-5 Big Ten), who hit 31 free throws in 39 tries.
Iowa took the lead with an early 14-0 run and never looked back against the last winless team in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes let Penn State creep back within 69-62 with 1:30 left, but White answered with a three-point play and another basket in a five-point possession for Iowa after a flagrant foul on Penn State.
D.J. Newbill had 20 points for teh Nittany Lions (8-13, 0-9), who committed 18 turnovers.
“We needed it,” White said. “Not the prettiest game, and didn’t even execute that great. But you know, a win is a win.”
Over the past month, Iowa has played a slate as tough as any team in the country. That’s why the Hawkeyes couldn’t afford to drop this one.
Iowa opened the Big Ten on New Year’s Eve with a narrow loss to No. 3 Indiana and subsequently fell to ranked opponents Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. A disheartening overtime loss at Purdue last Sunday and an impending road trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin only amped up the urgency for the Hawkeyes.
“It comes to a point where ... you need to get a winning streak going. This was a good one for us to start,” White said.
They got off to an awful start, though.
Fortunately for Iowa, it lasted only 4 minutes.
The Hawkeyes started Basabe and left guard Anthony Clemmons on the bench, only to fall behind 10-3.
Iowa responded with 14 straight points, a surge kick-started by three quick layups from White.
, for a lead it would not relinquish.
“He played with great energy. I wouldn’t have said we’d have been able to play him 34 minutes,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We just felt like he was affecting the game at both ends.”
Clemmons had eight points in just 14 minutes for the Hawkeyes, and struggling center Adam Woodbury had six points and three blocks.
But it was Basabe – who struggled mightily in 2011-12 after a stellar freshman season – that caught the eye of Penn State coach Pat Chambers.
“Melsahn Basabe was terrific,” Chambers said. “The last four or five games, he’s been a beast. He was all over the glass, played really aggressive, dunking everything. He’s playing great.”
Penn State hung around for a while – despite Iowa’s early spurt – and made things mildly interesting late.
The Nittany Lions got as close as 39-36 on Sasa Borovnjak’s tip-in early in the second half before Iowa answered with a 12-2 run.
Penn State made a late push to cut a 15-point deficit down to seven in just five minutes. But White scored five quick points to end Penn State’s slim shot at a comeback.
Jermaine Marshall scored 15 points for the Nittany Lions, who hit 14 of 16 free throws.
“We’re playing hard. We’re playing together. We just need that one stop, or we need that one shot to go down,” Chambers said. “I feel like we’re getting better.”
Iowa shot just 40 percent from the field and again struggled from 3-point range, hitting just 5 in 21 tries.
Those numbers might not lead to wins in other gyms against better teams.
But on Thursday, it was just enough.
“They played a little bit better offensively, and that’s been a struggle for us,” McCaffery said. “But our execution is still a little bit off.”