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No. 11 Hawkeyes show their gritty side to outslug No. 13 Rutgers on the road

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Luka Garza wants you to know how silly it is to think of Iowa as a “finesse” basketball team.

“I think people say that just because we can shoot the ball very well,” Garza said after a 77-75 victory over No. 13 Rutgers on Saturday that was not for the faint of heart, or any other organ.

“They think if you’re shooters, you’re not tough. We have a tough group. Every single one of our guys are battle-tested. We get to the glass. We fight teams.”

The No. 11 Hawkeyes (9-2, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) beat a ranked opponent on the road for the first time in Garza’s four seasons. It took 11 players, 18 free throws, a season-high nine blocked shots and every bandage the trainers had packed. But Iowa proved that it can exchange punches with anyone in the league while winning a second consecutive two-point game at the RAC.

“It was won with grit,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.

Here were three examples:

  • Freshman forward Keegan Murray was called on to play 22 minutes after starting power forward Connor McCaffery exited early with an ankle injury. Murray, at 6-foot-8, was more than up to that task. He scored 14 points. He blocked three shots, two of them by Rutgers star Ron Harper Jr. in the second half. He grabbed nine rebounds, four of them on the offensive end. He drew four fouls.

It was the final offensive rebound, which led to the final foul, that put Murray at the line for the biggest free throws of his life. Iowa trailed 75-74 with 16 seconds left. Murray made them both, to provide the Hawkeyes with the winning points.

“I didn’t feel any pressure. I’ve been through it before,” said Murray, who in fact had not been through this before, not at the college level, against a ranked Big Ten opponent, on the road. “I trust my shot.”

PISCATAWAY, NJ - JANUARY 02:  CJ Fredrick #5 and Keegan Murray #15 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate their 77-75 win over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in a college basketball game at Rutgers Athletic Center on January 2, 2021 in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Murray’s selfless competitive nature, and unflappable demeanor, symbolized Iowa’s effort. The points and rebounds were a season-high for him.

“If I can do anything to make our team win, it’s satisfying to me. If I can make two free throws to put us up,” he said.

  • The Hawkeyes led 66-65 with 3:10 remaining when Rutgers guard Montez Mathis headed for what could have been an easy layup. Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, all 6-1 of him, stood between Mathis and the rim and decided to knock his Scarlet Knight counterpart to the floor instead of allowing any free points. Not in this game. Not in that moment. Bohannon walked away from Mathis without offering an apology or a helping hand. Message sent.

Mathis made only one of his two free throws. Bohannon saved the Hawkeyes a vital point in a close game, while also letting everyone know that this was most definitely not a finesse game, or a finesse team.

“It was just a dogfight,” said Bohannon, a fifth-year senior. “I knew that he wasn’t the greatest foul shooter. If we could get just one of the two, that would be huge for us. … That’s just Big Ten basketball for you.

“We had a lot of things to prove.”

  • On its second-to-last possession, trailing 76-75, Rutgers (7-2, 3-2) was ill-equipped to handle a suffocating Iowa zone defense. There was no room to pass, and when the basketball finally went inside to center Myles Johnson, he was hemmed in so thoroughly under the basket that he lost it out of bounds.

“Our pressure made the pass tough, made the catch tough. For him to fumble the ball out of bounds, it was a credit to our pressure,” Garza said. “That’s a huge lesson: Just keep battling.”

No one battles like Garza, and Saturday was one of his biggest challenges. He scored 15 points in the final 8:31 to finish with 25. Rutgers had him bottled up for most of the game, but he kept moving around in Iowa’s offensive sets, and the Hawkeye guards eventually found him with enough space to go to work.

Jan 2, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Paul Mulcahy (4) shoots the ball against Iowa Hawkeyes center Luka Garza (55) during the first half at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

“Once I was able to get the ball cleanly in my hands, then I knew that I could score,” Garza said. “My guys never gave up on me, kept trusting me.”

Iowa made 9 of its final 12 shots to pull out the victory, most of them from Garza.

They trusted Murray as well. The freshman is quickly proving that he is going to be one of the most important players on a veteran team, for what he can do on both ends of the court and for the poise he always seems to show.

He had made all three of his previous free throws when he stepped to the line with 16 seconds left. There was no indication that he felt out of place at such a big moment.

The last time Iowa won on the road against a ranked opponent, it was a freshman named Bohannon who made the winning shot, on a no-doubt-about-it 3-pointer that stung Wisconsin. Bohannon, who played at Linn-Mar, sees a lot of himself in Murray, formerly of Cedar Rapids Prairie.

“He’s a phenomenal player,” said Bohannon, who finished with 13 points of his own. “I think that’s really special to see, a young guy like that being able to come in and not really worry about the pace of the game and just play his game that he’s been working so hard on his entire life.

“It’s that Cedar Rapids water, there’s something about that.”

PISCATAWAY, NJ - JANUARY 02: Ahron Ulis #4 of the Iowa Hawkeyes attempts a layup as Caleb McConnell #22 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights defends during the first half of a college basketball game at Rutgers Athletic Center on January 2, 2021 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Iowa defeated Rutgers 77-75.

'He's ready:' Fran McCaffery turns to a freshman to run point in first half

Murray has been part of Iowa’s nine-player rotation all season, so 22 minutes for him weren’t a complete surprise. But when Fran McCaffery brought Ahron Ulis, and then Tony Perkins, into the game in the first half, it was a brand-new tactic. Neither had played any meaningful minutes all season and certainly not early in a Big Ten game.

But with Connor McCaffery out, CJ Fredrick with two fouls, and Joe Wieskamp struggling, the Hawkeyes coach felt he had no choice but to bring in a pair of rookies that he has watched blossom in practice, if not in games.

Ulis, a point guard, scored two points, with three rebounds and four assists in his 14 minutes. He committed no turnovers.

Perkins, a shooting guard, had a single point in five minutes. But both became much more confident, and aggressive, as their time on the court progressed. Iowa even erased a lead and went into halftime tied 35-35 as a result of their solid play.

“Ahron came in and was moving the ball around and driving into the paint, kicking it out and opened up the game a lot in the first half,” said Bohannon, who moved to the shooting guard spot in that stretch. “A big reason why I was able to get going with a couple of 3s was because of his play. And I thought he was great on the defensive end and on the glass.”

Fran McCaffery said he expects his son, Connor, to be able to play in Iowa’s next game, at Maryland at 6 p.m. Thursday. But he was happy to be able to get Ulis some valuable learning time.

Jan 2, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Jacob Young (42) shoots the ball as Iowa guard Ahron Ulis, left, and center Luka Garza (55) defend during the second half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s got tremendous confidence in himself. He’s really smart. He’s got good size (6-3) and speed. And he’s ready,” McCaffery said. “I had no hesitation to put him in. I’d been wanting to play him more.”

How Iowa beat Rutgers at its game:  Free throws, bench points and 'improv'

The Hawkeyes committed 15 turnovers and gave up 16 offensive rebounds. It was a muddy game, which was to the Scarlet Knights’ liking.

“Normally you lose those games,” Fran McCaffery observed.

Indeed. So how did Iowa win this one?

By going to its bench and getting to the free-throw line.

Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said earlier in the week he was concerned about keeping the Hawkeyes off the line. The Scarlet Knights couldn’t afford to lose that battle, he said.

But Iowa kept driving into the paint, and throwing it down low to Garza. Murray’s free throws all came after he gathered offensive rebounds. Garza relentlessly drew six fouls and made 6 of 7 free throws.

Rutgers, meanwhile, was horrible at the line, misfiring all afternoon. For the game, Iowa made 18 of 23; Rutgers just 4 of 12. That’s a 14-point disparity, and Pikiell’s worst nightmare come to life.

The Hawkeyes also got 24 important points from reserve players, as McCaffery used some of the most unexpected combinations imaginable. Murray had 14. Jack Nunge came up with five in the first half. Patrick McCaffery had a big basket.

The Hawkeyes needed them all.

Afterward, Bohannon was asked if it felt like his team had engineered a victory on the fly, with its game plan gone out the window due to injuries and foul trouble.

“It was just basketball,” Bohannon said. “We’ve been dealing with a lot of stuff. We’re playing in a global pandemic right now, so this is the ultimate improv.”

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.