Matt Gatens knew that the end was coming. He just didn't know when he would hear the horn for the final time in an Iowa uniform and he wasn't prepared to take off the black and gold jersey without a fight.
That fight came to an end last Sunday when Iowa was defeated by Oregon in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. Gatens finished his day with just seven points after a strong final flurry in the last month that helped the Hawkeyes reach post season play for the first time since 2006.
"You hear the final buzzer and you are walking off the court and it kind of hits you. Coach Speraw grabbed me and a few other guys grab you and then it all kind of hits you that this is the last time that I will be competing with these guys in this uniform. It hits you really quick. It's sad, but at the same time I am really proud of what we were able to accomplish."
There were no tears in the locker room that night as the Iowa City native took off his Iowa jersey for the final time. There were hugs from coaches, teammates, team managers, and his family afterwards celebrating a job well done for a young man who grew up dreaming of playing for the Hawkeyes.
One week later, Gatens is beginning to process his feelings about not only a special senior season, but his entire Iowa career, which was filled with more than a few difficult moments, especially in his first two seasons.
"I have done a little bit of that," Gatens said late in the week. "It seems like only yesterday that we got done. It's just so incredible how fast it goes and I am so thankful to have played for Iowa and the relationships that I have been able to develop with my teammates. I'll probably reflect more on it as time passes, but now it's time to focus on the next step for me."
That next step will be continuing to chase his hoop dreams. While Gatens dreamed of being a Hawkeye as long as he can remember, he has also dreamed of playing the game he loves at the professional level. Gatens will travel to Virginia to compete in the Portsmouth Invitational from April 11th to 14th and face off with a group of fellow seniors also chasing their professional basketball dreams.
Where this next step takes Gatens is unknown. Portsmouth has been a proving ground for many players who ended up in the NBA, but many also end up in the D-League or playing overseas. Those decisions will come later for Gatens, but he's excited about the opportunity ahead and not ready to give up on his dream.
"I'd like to keep playing and see where that takes me. If it's here or overseas, I'd like to try it for at least a year. If I like it, then I'll keep doing it and if not, then I will do something else." I grew up wanting to be a professional basketball player, so I want to give it a shot."
The end of his playing career allows Gatens to return to a spot he's had for the vast majority of his life as an Iowa fan. While he would love to have an extra year of eligibility and keep wearing the Iowa jersey for one more season, he is looking forward to being Iowa's #1 fan in the years to come.
"I would have loved to have played one more year with the guys we have coming back and the guys we have coming in next year, but this is their time to lead it. I've had four great years being an Iowa Hawkeye and it has been incredible. Now I get to be a fan again and help those guys out in any way I can," Gatens said.
One thing Gatens feels very good about is the future of Iowa Basketball. It's not a matter of if, but when for the Hawkeyes when it comes to making a return to the NCAA Tournament, according to the former Hawkeye. He will take a great deal of pride in the accomplishment when it happens, even though he will no longer to part of the team.
"Whether it is next year or the following year, I think we will all take pride in it. I think all of us who have played at Iowa will feel like we are part of it and will be very proud of the accomplishment. I think these guys are capable of doing and it and I will be watching and cheering them on when they do."
Until that day arrives, Gatens will watch the journey of his former teammates and also spend time reflecting on a senior year to remember. All of the memories of a difficult first two years are on the backburner now as he looks back at several very special moments in his senior campaign, led by a victory at home over Wisconsin, which saw Gatens score a career best 33 points and end up being hoisted on the shoulders of his fellow students.
"The Wisconsin game when everyone stormed the court and being on top of everyone was pretty special," Gatens said. "The fans were great that night, but they were great the night of the Dayton game too. I haven't seen the arena like that in a while."
The first round NIT win over Dayton also stands out to the senior guard, if for no other reason than it provided him with an opportunity leave Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a victory. In early March on Senior Day, Gatens and the Hawkeyes suffered a four point loss to Northwestern. Gatens thought that would be it as far as games on his home floor. But, the NIT provided on last opportunity and after the nine point victory over the Flyers, he was able to leave the floor with a victory.
"It was kind of a rare opportunity to get another crack and leaving Carver with a win. We were all kind of disappointed after the loss to Northwestern and wish we would have gotten that one. But, we got another chance to play at home against a really good Dayton team and the crowd was incredible. It felt great leaving the court one last time with a win."
It's been a pretty incredible ride for Gatens, especially in the final month of the 2011-12 season. After seeing plenty of empty seats for much of his career, the Hawkeye fans returned in full force. They embraced Gatens like he did with former Hawkeyes as kid growing up sitting with his parents in the stands. He gladly returned the embrace and is very thankful for the support he has received, especially late in his Iowa career.
"This last month or so when we have experienced more success has just been incredible," Gatens said. "The fan support has been so amazing and the response I have gotten has been so special to me. It just shows what kind of people we have in this state and around the country that are Hawk fans. I just want to say thanks. It has been an incredible ride and I can't thank them enough. Hawkeye fans are the best fans in the nation."