No. 11 Iowa gets early boost from two freshmen to seize control in win over Northwestern

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery did a curious thing minutes into Tuesday’s game against first-place Northwestern.

He turned to a pair of freshman forwards to see if they could jumpstart a team locked in a tight game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Patrick McCaffery and Keegan Murray gave the Hawkeyes just what they needed — a pulse. By the time they were finished, Iowa had a double-digit lead it never relinquished in an 87-72 victory over No. 22 Northwestern (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten Conference).

“That lineup I think really turned the game around with their defensive intensity. Created some offense with their defense and activity on the glass, and that's what those guys do, and that's what our team has to be, quite honestly,” Fran McCaffery said.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that can contribute in different ways. And then I thought when the first group went back in, they fed off that energy and excelled to finish the half.”

That’s right. It was the youngsters who set the tone, and the veterans who took it from there for No. 11 Iowa (8-2, 2-1). It was a display of how important all nine players are in Fran McCaffery’s primary rotation. The Hawkeyes need big moments from someone different each game, depending on how opponents defend star center Luka Garza.

On Tuesday, it was sophomore guard CJ Fredrick and four reserve players who turned the game around with a 9-0 run in a span of two minutes. Fredrick was brilliant in the first half, and it was his 3-pointer off a feed from backup center Jack Nunge that gave Iowa a 22-18 lead. Fredrick had 17 first-half points as the Wildcats tried in vain to locate him while he cut off of a series of effective screens.

Iowa freshman Keegan Murray dunks for two of his nine points in Tuesday's home win over Northwestern. Murray and fellow freshman Patrick McCaffery gave the Hawkeyes some needed energy in the first half, and the veteran players took it from there.

Patrick McCaffery then hustled to the glass to tip in a missed shot by Nunge. Next, Murray didn’t give up on a rebound of a Joe Toussaint miss, battling three Wildcats to get a hand on the basketball, deflecting it right to McCaffery for a layup.

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Murray followed with a beautiful turnaround jump shot, then cut to the basket and gathered a perfect feed from McCaffery for a dunk that left both rookies pumping their arms with excitement. Murray later calmly drained a 3-pointer to push Iowa’s lead to 38-28.

That was more than enough for the Hawkeye freshmen on this night. They played sparingly in the second half as Iowa closed out a needed victory one game after giving up a late lead and losing in overtime at Minnesota.

“They gave us a tremendous boost off the bench. It really got us going. We were able to get consecutive stops,” Fredrick said. “Keegan and Patrick and Jack getting to the glass. They’re great players off the bench. We’re so lucky to have those guys.”

Iowa is lucky to have Fredrick as well. He was coming off a career-high 23-point outing at Minnesota and made the Wildcats pay for all the extra attention they were giving to Garza.

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“I knew I was going to get some open looks early, and I just wanted to be aggressive and get good looks. I made that first one and then I was rolling a little bit in the first half,” Fredrick said. “I was reading the court really well. I was starting to move without the ball and I could really read how they were guarding me on screens. And I was able to get some open looks and create some shots for myself.”

Fredrick scored only two points in the second half, but he had already made his statement. Northwestern tried to clamp down on him, only to see Garza score 12 of his 18 points in the second half. Jordan Bohannon scored 19 of his 24 after intermission.

There were simply too many Hawkeyes scoring in too many different ways for the Wildcats to keep up with. But those 11 first-half points from McCaffery and Murray may have hurt the most, because those are players Northwestern probably wasn’t expecting to have that much impact. And that puts additional pressure on opposing defenses already trying to figure out how to contend with Garza, Bohannon, Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp (10 points Tuesday).

Joe Toussaint was one of many Iowa defenders who harassed Northwestern's Boo Buie into a two-point outing Tuesday. Buie looked flustered by a Hawkeye defense that was focused on stopping him.

Opposing point guards have lit up Iowa, but not Boo Buie. Here's why

In Iowa’s two losses this season, the inability to contain a talented point guard has been problematic. Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs tormented the Hawkeyes with 27 points; Minnesota’s Marcus Carr put up 30, including the 3-pointer that forced overtime.

Northwestern has a very talented sophomore running the show in Boo Buie. He scored 30 points in a win over Michigan State. He canned the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:04 left to beat Ohio State.

Buie scored only two points against Iowa, missing seven of his eight shots. He did have eight assists and six rebounds, but by the end of the game was visibly frustrated and forcing up shots that had little chance of going in.

Iowa’s defensive effort on Buie started with some inspired play by Bohannon. But every Hawkeye had a hand in it.

“We marked him, and our intention was to make it tough for him, be aware of him,” Fran McCaffery said.

Fredrick said an emphasis in practice this week was to get better ball pressure on Northwestern’s perimeter players. Minnesota made 17 3-pointers against the Hawkeyes, and the Wildcats are a terrific long-range shooting team.

That started with Buie.

“Whoever was on him did a great job of just being in his space, finding him in transition, not letting him get transition 3s. We were walling him off on screens,” Fredrick said.

“One of arguably the best players in our league, and we were able to control him.”

Buie will get another shot at the Hawkeyes in three weeks in Evanston. So keep an eye on that matchup again.

But there was no question who had the upper hand Tuesday.

Iowa center Luka Garza shoots one of his six free throws, all of them makes, during Tuesday's win over Northwestern. The Hawkeyes went 20-for-25 from the stripe, which is more in line with what is expected from a team filled with excellent shooters.

Are Iowa's free-throw hiccups behind it? Tuesday was a good step

The Hawkeyes missed 11 free throws in the loss at Minnesota. They missed 12 in the loss to Gonzaga.

For a team loaded with premier shooters, this was a troubling trend.

On Tuesday, the Hawkeyes made 20 of 25 from the free-throw line, led by Garza’s 6-for-6. Bohannon made all four of his, saying afterward that the team didn’t discuss the free-throw woes in the three days after the Minnesota game. He said he was confident that the Hawkeyes would improve in that area because the track record of every player shows as much.

Still, it was interesting to observe what happened 30 minutes after Tuesday’s game ended. Fredrick had just finished speaking to reporters via Zoom when he was seen walking back onto the court with a student manager.

Fredrick stood at the free-throw line and took shot after shot. He was 4-for-6 from the line Tuesday, the only Hawkeye who missed more than one. He is 8-for-15 on free throws in the past three games. He is 10 of 17 on 3-pointers in that same stretch. That defies logic, and is unlikely to last.

So maybe the Hawkeyes aren’t talking about free throws, but they’re certainly aware of their importance, particularly in close games. Fredrick realizes he’s too good of a shooter to be misfiring from the line, and is working to correct that.

Bohannon is correct, though, when he points out that the missed free throws are an anomaly. It would be startling if that continues to be an issue for this Hawkeye team, featuring one of the best offenses in America.

Perhaps Tuesday’s showing was a sign that the worst is behind Iowa in that department.

Iowa next plays at Rutgers at 1 p.m. Saturday.

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