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Dom Uhl was the reason Iowa beat Rutgers, his coach says

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Just when the Iowa men’s basketball team was in danger of becoming the answer to a trivia question Sunday, it got some life from an unexpected source.

Junior forward Dom Uhl, a one-time starter now fighting for minutes off the Hawkeyes’ bench, sparked a late rally, and Iowa held off Rutgers, 68-62, before an announced crowd of 11,347 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“He was the man today. He was the difference in the game without question,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Uhl. “He could have hung his head.  He had a terrific practice (Saturday). I just thought he earned the opportunity to get more minutes, and that's the reason we won.”

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Uhl’s first three Big Ten Conference games this winter consisted of 30 minutes of action and six points. The Hawkeyes lost two of those games and it appeared Uhl had been supplanted in the rotation by freshmen Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl.

Rutgers (11-6, 0-4 Big Ten) woke him up. The Scarlet Knights were seeking their first-ever Big Ten road victory in their 21st attempt and were abusing Iowa inside in the early going. Rutgers outmuscled Iowa for 19 offensive rebounds and scored 40 points in the paint.

Uhl, at 6-foot-9, had seen enough. He responded with a season-high 10 points and eight rebounds. He had three blocked shots all season entering the game. He ended with a career-high five, sending a message with each shot he sent flying back out of the paint.

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Hawkeyes guard Jordan Bohannon talks about the defensive switch that carried the day

The Hawkeyes (10-7, 2-2) protected their home court because Uhl helped them protect the rim.

“I know what I’m capable of and I feel like I can play like that every day. Play aggressive, play with intensity, energy,” Uhl said.

Uhl played 23 inspired minutes Sunday, getting to the free-throw line eight times and making five. It was the pair he hit midway through the second half that began Iowa’s climb out of a 51-42 hole.

“He did everything that we needed him to do and then some,” Pemsl said of Uhl. “The way that Dom was playing shows me that he needs to be playing out there and helping us win more.”

The Hawkeyes were coming off back-to-back overtime games, most recently a 50-minute slog at Nebraska on Thursday that ended with a 93-90 loss, a long trip home and a quick turnaround. If it seemed like last-place Rutgers was the perfect antidote for any hangover, it was not meant to be. Sunday’s game turned into just as much of a grind as the previous two.

Iowa surrendered an 8-0 run to the end the first half and allow Rutgers to forge a 32-32 tie. Rutgers turned nine Hawkeye turnovers into 13 points and repeatedly got clean looks in the paint.

Iowa looked a little sluggish, but McCaffery was quick to dismiss any notion that his team was fatigued.

“I thought there was one stretch where Pete (Jok) was tired. And we got him. And it was one stretch where (Nicholas) Baer was tired, and we got him,” McCaffery said. “The rest of the guys didn't play enough minutes to be tired, in my opinion.”

What snapped his team out of its funk — aside from Uhl’s high motor — was asking it to expend more energy on defense. It was when McCaffery unveiled a 1-2-2 full-court press that Rutgers started to unravel and the Hawkeyes picked up energy.

The Hawkeyes closed the game on a 26-11 run, forcing five turnovers while blocking five shots in that stretch.

“We’ve been working on that ever since the summer. It can really speed teams up. It really gets us really active on the defensive end,” Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon said of the press.

A steal by Jok at halfcourt led to a Bohannon layup that put Iowa in the lead for good at 57-55 with 3:59 remaining.

“Coach knew that, too. We weren’t really active on the defensive end, especially in that first half,” Bohannon said of the decision to start pressing.

“We weren’t really getting much in the half-court offense. But once we started speeding them up off the press, we were able to get some transition layups and get our confidence up.”

Bohannon finished with eight points and a season-high eight assists. Jok scored 18 points despite making only 2 of 10 3-pointers. Pemsl added 13 points in a team-high 31 minutes as his fellow freshman forward Cook struggled, connecting on 1 of 6 shots and finishing with four points.

That opened the door for Uhl to shine.

And it started with him taking the court two hours before tipoff to work on a shot that had seemed to desert him this season. Uhl entered play 5-for-25 from 3-point range. But he hit his first attempt early and got on a roll.

“I feel like my shot just hasn’t been falling in the beginning of the season and I was just trying to stay positive, keep shooting,” Uhl said.

As for his defense, Uhl credited it to guarding Jok in practice.

“It’s definitely a good challenge for me,” Uhl said of taking on Jok. “I think it benefits both of us.”

On Sunday, it benefited the entire team. Iowa couldn’t afford to lose at home to a Rutgers team still foundering in the Big Ten. Thanks to Uhl, it didn’t.

Iowa next hosts Purdue at 8 p.m. Thursday.

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