No. 3 Iowa falters in key first-half stretch, falls to No. 1 Gonzaga in marquee matchup

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Iowa was superb in some aspects of basketball Saturday and woeful in others.

The No. 3 Hawkeyes stared down the No. 1 team in the country at the Sanford Pentagon and walked away with a 99-88 loss to Gonzaga and a vow to “be tougher.”

Iowa’s transition defense was inadequate in the first half, as was the rebounding. Those went hand in hand.

The Hawkeyes were off-target from the 3-point arc, while the Bulldogs were making them pay for open looks from distance. Iowa’s passing was not crisp enough. Gonzaga (4-0) shared the basketball with precision.

And yet, if you want to examine where the Hawkeyes lost this game, look at two uncharacteristically poor stretches of offense, one by each team.

Midway through the first half, trailing 25-24 in a game that was as frenetic and beautiful as advertised, Iowa (6-1) missed on seven consecutive field-goal attempts. Four different Hawkeyes watched shots they normally make bounce off the rim. And into the hands of a Gonzaga player eager to run. By the time it was over, the Bulldogs had built a 38-24 lead and put the Hawkeyes firmly on their heels.

But there was a second-half stretch by Gonzaga in which it missed five straight field goals while leading 74-56. Here was a chance for Iowa to whittle that deficit into single digits. Instead, Iowa pulled to within only 75-61.

Iowa center Luka Garza shoots over Gonzaga's Drew Timme on Saturday at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Garza scored 30 points and Timme fouled out. But the Bulldogs came away with the 99-88 victory in a marquee college basketball matchup.

One team took advantage of a rare lapse by the other. And that team won the game.

“It starts with transition and then ball-screen defense and then rebounding. In the first half, we didn’t do a good job in transition. Credit them. We had that one stretch where nothing was falling,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “They pushed it and scored. We needed to get back and get a stop.”

It’s just one loss in December for Iowa, against a team that may be the most talented it will see all year. It doesn’t derail anything for a team focused on winning a Big Ten Conference title and making a run to the Final Four in April. But it needs to spur introspection for the Hawkeyes, because they didn’t measure up in their second big test of the season, after handling North Carolina 93-80 earlier in the month.

“We know that we’ve got to be tougher, especially on the glass. We’re a better rebounding team than we showed tonight,” said Iowa center Luka Garza, who had 30 points and 10 rebounds Saturday. “For us to win these kind of games, we need to be the tougher team. We need to be the grittier team.”

More:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

Gonzaga rebounds and runs in first half; Iowa adjusts in second

Gonzaga and Iowa came into the game with the two most efficient offenses in America, according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics. Both like to push the pace. But the Hawkeyes discovered Saturday that the Bulldogs were better at that.

Gonzaga had 11 fast-break points in the first half, which ended with a 51-37 lead. The problem wasn’t just that Iowa missed 19 shots in the half, it was that only two of those were rebounded by a Hawkeye. That’s an abysmal number.

The good news for Iowa is it got better. In the second half, the Hawkeyes missed 21 more shots, but rebounded 11 of them. Reserve post player Jack Nunge had five of those, on his way to 10 points and eight rebounds for the game. That’s the best way for Iowa to take pressure off of its transition defense.

Jack Nunge again provided key minutes off the bench for Iowa on Saturday.

Gonzaga had only seven fast-break points in the second half. The same total as Iowa. That part of the game became essentially a stalemate. Just one half too late for the Hawkeyes.

More:Iowa basketball: A grieving Jack Nunge has inspirational return to the court for No. 3 Hawkeyes

Speedy sophomore Joe Toussaint drives Hawkeyes back into the game

Nunge wasn’t Iowa’s most important bench player, however. That was Joe Toussaint, the sophomore point guard who showed he is built for this type of game, where speed is vital. Toussaint has plenty of that.

In the second half, the Hawkeyes went on a run that coincided with Toussaint’s nine minutes of playing time. Gonzaga was intent on limiting Garza’s impact while also closing out aggressively on Iowa’s 3-point shooters (there need to be more shot-fakes, the Hawkeyes agreed afterward). The Hawkeyes made only 4 of 22 3-point attempts, with Joe Wieskamp responsible for three of the successes.

Earlier:New Hawkeye point guard Toussaint brings Big Apple mentality to Iowa City

Iowa backup point guard Joe Toussaint drives for one his six layups Saturday, this one over Gonzaga's Andrew Nembhard. Toussaint finished with 14 points, displaying how vital his speed can be, in the Hawkeyes' 99-88 loss.

The Bulldogs’ defensive scheme opened up room for a driver like Toussaint, and he was willing to hurtle his 6-foot frame into the paint and make them pay. Toussaint drew four fouls. The shortest player on the court also made six layups, sprinting back downcourt after each while someone on the Iowa bench told him: “Every time.”

Toussaint had 12 of his 14 points in the second half, when he supplanted an ineffective Jordan Bohannon for an extended stretch.

Iowa cut the deficit from 18 points to 12 while Toussaint was in the game. He went back to the bench after committing a pair of turnovers, but returned to make two more layups to trim Gonzaga’s lead to 96-88, the closest the Hawkeyes got in the second half.

“We needed to speed the game up at that point. And he provided the penetration and was really good finishing, getting to the rim,” McCaffery said of Toussaint, who averages 15 minutes of playing time per game but may have just showed that that number needs to increase.

Gonzaga throws everything at Luka Garza, but doesn't throw him off

Garza is the nation’s leading scorer at 29.3 points per game. So you might think that his 30-point effort Saturday was just par for the exceptional course he is on.

It was much more than that. Garza played 37 minutes, blocked three shots, drew five fouls and commanded the Bulldogs’ full attention.

Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs, who scored 27 points, said one strategy put in place was to force Garza away from the basket on defense by executing ball screens. That would free up a Bulldog to slip into the paint for an easy basket.

“We did a really good job of that early, and in the second half … the ball started to stick,” Suggs said after making seven of Gonzaga’s 13 3-pointers.

Gonzaga mixed up its tactics in defending Garza, not that anything really worked for long. Three different post players took turns guarding him, with one of them (starting center Drew Timme) fouling out.

“We were bringing double(team)s from different areas,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “But then also we were very concerned about their 3-point shooters and just giving those guys open looks out there. So we were pulling our doubles, putting them on, pulling them off and trying to do some things. But I can’t sit here and say it works when he put 30 on us, 30 and 10.

“He’s a heck of a player and they do a great job, the staff does, of putting him in positions that make it hard to double. And if you don’t execute the double properly, you’re going to pay. Those guys around him really know how to play.”

Garza needed only 18 shots to get his 30 points. He clearly enjoyed the opportunity to tangle with a talented Gonzaga frontcourt in a nationally televised game.

Ultimately, that was the primary benefit of Saturday’s matchup. It was a chance for two teams that rightfully believe they are contenders for a national championship to measure themselves on a big stage, with low stakes since there are three months to go and conference seasons to play out.

Few, who has built a perennial power, put it best when asked why he would fly his team from Spokane, Washington, to Sioux Falls for a single contest.

“Any time you can get in a 1 vs. 3 game,” he said, “that’s a heck of a memory for a lifetime.”

It’s a memory the Hawkeyes can draw on, but don’t need to dwell on. Big Ten Conference play gets underway starting with an 8 p.m. Tuesday home game against Purdue.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.