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Here is a look at the Hawkeyes' 2017-18 hoops opponents. Tyler Davis/The Register

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Jack Nunge was Iowa’s most valuable player Thursday in a harder-than-it-should-have-been 85-74 win over Grambling State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Nunge brought the most energy in a rather listless first half for the Hawkeyes. And the 6-foot-11 freshman forward gave his team the lead for good midway through the second half, backing down an overmatched Tigers guard for a pair of layups.

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For good measure, Nunge put his limbs to excellent use at the top of Iowa’s 1-3-1 pressing defense, a bothersome presence that helped Iowa slow down Grambling State and fend off its upset bid.

“The coaches are always on me to use my length and try to get tipped passes,” Nunge said.

Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery said Nunge is the tallest player he’s ever been able to employ as the spearhead of his press, surpassing the 6-9 Aaron White.

“He was probably until now the best guy that we had there,” McCaffery said of White, who plays professionally in Europe these days.

Until now?

That’s high praise for a guy appearing in just his third college game. But it accentuates the potential that Nunge has to impact games on both ends of the court.

“He’s trying to disrupt and get them a little bit sideways with what they’re trying to do,” McCaffery said of Nunge. “He’s a hard guy to see around.”

Nunge led Iowa with 17 points, burying three 3-pointers to force Grambling State to be aware of him on the perimeter.

In the crucial stretch of the game, McCaffery placed Nunge on the low block, daring the Tigers to try to stop him there.

They couldn’t.

Nunge was on the court with 6-11 Luka Garza and 6-9 Tyler Cook. That puts pressure on an opponent.

“We knew that they couldn’t guard all three of us so coach decided to put me in the post,” said Nunge, who called for the basketball from point guard Jordan Bohannon and then Garza on his two baskets. “We know there’s no team that can match our size. That’s really kind of a focal point of us is to use our size.

“I think after that timeout, they put one of their short little guards on me, so we knew the play would work.”

Nunge made it work. He made everything work Thursday for the Hawkeyes, who needed him badly.

Illness depletes backcourt

Connor McCaffery lost the first two games of his Iowa career to an ankle injury and now has had a bigger setback. The freshman point guard and son of Fran McCaffery found out Wednesday that he’s been battling mononucleosis for a week. He had thought it was a cold.

Connor McCaffery is having trouble swallowing and is suffering earaches, his father said. Mono is also known to sap its victims of energy.

Connor will be out another 2-3 weeks.

“He’s going to be exhausted, and we’ve got to get him back into shape,” Fran McCaffery said of the recuperation.

That leaves Iowa with only Jordan Bohannon at point guard. Shooting guard Brady Ellingson has been sliding over to play the point as well in Iowa’s first three games and will have to continue to do so.

On Thursday, Ellingson had a strong first half but an ineffective second. He had two points and three assists in 15 minutes.

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Others struggle as well

Ellingson wasn’t the only Hawkeye to put together an inconsistent outing. Junior Ahmad Wagner started as usual at small forward, made one early terrific pass to Cook, but then committed a pair of turnovers and spent most of the game on the bench. He had one point, one rebound and one assist.

Sophomore forward Ryan Kriener made both of his shots for four points but didn’t have his usual energy and played only 11 minutes, gathering one rebound.

And Cordell Pemsl, who led Iowa with 15 points in Sunday’s win over Alabama State, never attempted a shot Thursday, making some curious decisions on passes that led to three turnovers. The sophomore played only 13 minutes as Nunge, Cook and Garza combined for 84.

“Cordell made a couple goofy passes in the first half,” McCaffery said. “He normally doesn’t make those mistakes, but he did, and he was frustrated about that because he knew what he wanted to and he just rushed himself.”

Garza up and down

Garza finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, but had periods of poor play as well, especially on the defensive end. He lost his man a few times and had only two points with two turnovers at halftime.

“We’re making a lot of mistakes. I think it’s good to work them out early,” Garza said. “I know for sure that I need to step it up and I’m going to make sure that we can be a better defensive team. … Our schedule is going to get really hard coming up soon.”

Garza dunked off of a Nunge feed to give Iowa a 65-59 lead with 7 minutes, 24 seconds left, hung on the rim for a second and barked at Grambling State forward Axel Mpoyo, who is 4 inches shorter than him.

It was the emotional highlight of the game for Iowa, and Garza said it resulted partly from his frustration over missing three free throws.

Garza also said to get used to such displays.

 “I try to play that way every time I step on the court,” he said. “That screaming and yelling, that’s not going to go away. That’s going to be there every single game.”

Moss keeps rolling

Hawkeye shooting guard Isaiah Moss came out of a timeout in the second half and promptly nailed the 3-pointer that pulled Iowa even.

“I noticed he sagged off me,” Moss said of the Grambling State defender. “I actually heard somebody say, ‘Shoot it.’ I wasn’t going to shoot it.”

Moss doesn’t need to be told to shoot as much this season. McCaffery said he’s given the sophomore the green light and has been pleased by the response.

Moss scored 15 points, with two assists and two steals, and earned the most playing time of any Hawkeye — 30 minutes. Backup shooting guard Maishe Dailey didn’t play in the second half.

“I thought he was aggressive. I thought he was under control. That’s a fine line. You turn him loose,” McCaffery said. “He’s looking for his shot and he’s making shots and scoring the ball and hit his free throws (4-for-4), and that’s what I want from him. I thought his activity level was good. He’s just getting more and more confident out there. I think he’s a terrific player. We need that from him.”

Moss leads the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game and has made 9 of 17 3-pointers. That’s a good start for a player expected to replace last year’s star shooting guard, Peter Jok.

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