The Runnin' Bulldogs (2-3) nearly had their second BCS conference upset in as many games, leading by as many as 23 points in the first half with another strong defensive effort. Gardner-Webb was playing the game without starters Mike Byron and Tashan Newsome for the second game in a row.
Gardner-Webb never trailed in the first half, building a double digit lead by the 7:40 mark on a pair of Jarvis Davis free throws to go up 22-12 - then whipping the Hawkeyes for the final seven minutes with a 16-3 run to go up 38-15 with 13 seconds left before the break.
Iowa (4-0) got three free throws from Josh Oglesby with one second left in the half to cut its deficit to 20 points.
The Hawkeyes went to work with a 12-0 run to start the second half, cutting the lead to 38-30 with 15:47 to play on a short jumper by McDonald's All-America freshman Adam Woodbury. Max Landis stemmed the tide with a jumper to put GWU up 40-30 with 14:32 left, but Iowa drained three consecutive three-point baskets over the next two minutes to quickly cut the lead to 42-39 by the 11:38 media timeout.
A tip in by Woodbury and a free throw by Aaron White tied the score, 42-42, with 9:59 left - but Gardner-Webb would steady itself and regain the lead three times over the next two minutes. Onzie Branch drained a short jumper with 7:39 left to put Gardner-Webb up 48-47 and, after an Oglesby trey gave Iowa its first lead of the game with 7:28 on the clock - Donta Harper connected on a pair of free throws after the under eight media timeout to tie the score at 50.
Iowa got a pair of layups after turnovers from Roy Devyn Marble to go up 54-50 with just over five minutes to play, and Gardner-Webb would get no closer than two points the rest of the way. The Hawkeyes made five free throws in the final two minutes to ice the comeback win.
"I think our guys are fearless in their approach," said Gardner-Webb head coach Chris Holtmann. "I appreciate that about them and we try to foster that. We get ready to play, and we want our guys to be in attack mode. We want our guys to be fearless, aggressive, and in an attack mindset. Iowa’s great and that’s how we want to play.
"We couldn’t impose our will at all in the second half, physically. They did, and it’s a credit to them. We’re not completely healthy; we’re missing some important pieces. But we played well the other night [at DePaul], and again I give credit to Coach McCaffery and their program responding the way they did, because down 20 is not an easy thing."
Gardner-Webb made 15 shots in the first half (15-of-36, 41.7 percent), but went cold in the second - making just five field goals (5-of-26, 19.2 percent) and missing all nine of its three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes.
The Runnin' Bulldogs were salty on defense in the opening 20 minutes, holding Iowa to only five field goals (5-of-25, 20.0 percent) and nothing from outside the arc (0-of-8). The smaller Runnin' Bulldogs also controlled the glass, outrebounding Iowa 24-18 in the first 20 minutes and pulling down 12 offensive caroms.
Iowa made 6-of-13 three-pointers in the second half and shot an even 50 percent (14-of-28) from the floor in its comeback effort. The hosts finished at 35.8 percent from the floor for the game.
Gardner-Webb held a 41-40 edge on the glass when the final buzzer sounded.
Branch came off the bench to score a season-high 13 points and pull down five rebounds, and Gardner-Webb continued to get solid scoring punch from Donta Harper (12 points, nine rebounds) and Max Landis (12 points, 2 steals). Forward Jerome Hill had six points and six rebounds in his second career start.
Iowa got 13 points from White and Oglesby and 12 points from Woodbury. Gardner-Webb will now travel to Cancun, Mexico, for two games to wrap up the 2012 Cancun Challenge. GWU will take on Howard Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 pm at the Moon Palace Resort and will play either Austin Peay or Western Carolina at 4:00 on Wednesday afternoon.