The sophomore center also talks about his strong game off the bench Mark Emmert/HawkCentral
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Iowa’s inspired rally past Illinois on Thursday doesn’t happen without what sophomore center Ryan Kriener did in nine vital second-half minutes.
It was the most time he’d seen in a Big Ten Conference game all season, and Kriener earned it, with five points, four rebounds and active defense on the back line of the 2-3 zone. Just as importantly, it allowed starting center Luka Garza time to rest and come in ready to take over down the stretch of the 104-97 overtime victory at the State Farm Center.
“Just went in there and played my game. Got people open, spaced the floor, hit open shots when they were there,” Kriener said matter-of-factly after helping turn the tide for a Hawkeye squad in dire need of a win. “Coach said to me, ‘We need more offensive rebounds,’ and I got two back-to-back in one possession. I think it was a pretty big momentum swing for us.”
Kriener was referring to a sequence when it appeared he was retrieving the ball for guard Jordan Bohannon at a shootaround, not actually muscling through Big Ten defenders in a crucial stretch of a game. Bohannon missed a 3-pointer with Iowa trailing 74-71 with 9:36 remaining. Kriener grabbed it and gave it right back to his close friend. Bohannon missed again. Kriener pulled it in, this time drawing a foul and making one of the subsequent free throws.
Moments later, Kriener found himself on the right baseline with the shot clock approaching zero. He calmly swished a shot to bring Iowa within 77-76.
Those plays, and those minutes, shouldn’t be overlooked when assessing what Iowa (10-9, 1-5 Big Ten) accomplished while rallying from a 20-point deficit. Kriener also had a steal and a blocked shot.
“We don’t really listen to all the stuff that everyone says about how we’re trash,” Kriener said of his team’s winless start to conference play. “We go back to work. It was good to see a little bit of that work pay off and that we’re finally figuring stuff out.”
The Iowa coach also addresses the improved 3-point defense in the second half against Illinois Mark Emmert/HawkCentral
Kriener suffered a concussion a month ago and has been working his way back into the rotation. Thursday was a bit of validation for an unsung role player.
“It was just really good to get back out there and really help get in the flow and doing what I knew I could be doing and play at the level I knew I could play at,” he said. “For the bench to kind of live up to everything that coach has been saying about us — when we come in there’s no dropoff — I think we really showed that.”
Bohannon gets to the line
It’s easy to focus on the 10-0 run that the Hawkeyes went on at the outset of the second half as the beginning of Thursday’s turnaround. But it actually started late in the first half thanks to a pair of conventional three-point plays from forward Tyler Cook and something rather unconventional for 3-point marksman Bohannon.
The final four points of the half belonged to Bohannon, all on free throws as Iowa repeatedly put Illinois in foul trouble. Bohannon was aggressive about getting to the line, and did so 10 times. He made all 10, a career-high.
For the game, Iowa went 33-for-40 at the charity stripe and four Illini players fouled out. It was the team’s biggest edge, and it started with its smallest player setting the tone.
“I just thought he was great all game long,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of his 6-foot sophomore point guard. “I thought he kept his composure, because they came after him. We knew they were going to come after him. They came after him last year here. They came after him again. And he was ready this time.”
Bohannon finished with 29 points, including a 3-pointer in overtime that pushed the lead to 99-90, well beyond reach for Illinois. But those four free throws at the tail end of a rough first half for the Hawkeyes were as big as any.
“J-Bo got us back in the game,” Garza said afterward. “And we took off from there.”
Success in the '2'
McCaffery kept yelling the number “2” at his players when they retreated to the defensive end in Thursday’s second half. That’s what the Hawkeyes call their 2-3 zone, and it eventually proved effective in shutting off the Illini’s 3-point attack.
Illinois scorched the Hawkeyes with nine 3-pointers in a 54-point first half. It was a pace they couldn’t keep up, and Iowa deserves some credit for making that so.
The Hawkeyes got stops on the first four Illinois possessions of the second half. The Illini didn’t make their first 3-pointer until 11 minutes had elapsed, and were just 5-of-15 from the arc after intermission. Illinois still shot 50 percent from the field after halftime, but it was a much better showing for Iowa, and the 2-3 zone was the reason.
“I thought the zone activity in the first half was not what it needed to be. I thought they really did a good job moving the ball,” McCaffery said.
“I thought they really carved up our zone. In the second half, I thought our activity level was way better (as was the) awareness of where people were.”
Garza said it began during Iowa’s three days of preparation for the Illini (10-8, 0-5).
“We watched film on them and they’re really good in man-to-man and they have that one set they go to a lot and a lot of teams have trouble guarding it,” Garza said. “We saw that if we played ‘2’ actively, we could start to stop them more. That was something we knew we were going to go to in the game plan. We knew we had to be active. Because a couple of games, teams were tearing up our zone.
“We can be a really good defensive team. I think we showed that.”
The jury is still out on that last statement. But the final 25 minutes Thursday were at least a start for the Hawkeyes if they want to end the narrative that defense is their Achilles heel.
Thursday marked the first time all season that all five Iowa starters scored in double figures. In addition to Bohannon, that included Cook (21), Garza (19), Isaiah Moss (12) and Nicholas Baer (10).
It was also the first time in Big Ten play that the Hawkeyes had that many players overall with 10 or more points.
Perhaps not. But consider that in Iowa’s two previous losses, Ohio State and Maryland each had starting lineups that all reached double figures. And Iowa players pointed that out in postgame interviews as something they had to curtail.
When opposing teams know they need to do more than just harass Bohannon and Cook, it does make Iowa harder to prepare for. It was a winning balance for Iowa on Thursday, and could be going forward.
Garza is a what?
The public-address announcer mistakenly introduced Garza as a guard before Thursday’s game. Iowa is thin at that position, but the 6-11 freshman hardly fits the bill.
Garza confirmed afterward that he heard the gaffe.
“Our whole team was laughing,” he said after scoring 17 of his points in the second half and overtime.
“I was driving it,” Garza joked, “so I’ve got to keep working. Maybe I can get there.”
Garza’s eight-point sequence in the final moments of regulation was the biggest reason Iowa ended its Big Ten drought. So, whatever position you want to call him, he gets the last word here on what that felt like.
“It’s about time,” Garza said. “It was a good change for us in terms of our mentality. Even at Maryland (a 91-73 loss Sunday), when we got down 10, we weren’t able to come back. I think that’s happened to us a couple of times, when a team goes on a run, we aren’t able to match their intensity.
“We did that (Thursday). We definitely did that.”