No. 8 Iowa finds a new way to win, riding its reserves to hold off Michigan State
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The only things that were typical about Iowa’s 84-78 victory over Michigan State on Tuesday were that Luka Garza led the way with 27 points and Jordan Bohannon swished the four late free throws that sealed it.
Other than that? This was an entirely new winning recipe for the No. 8 Hawkeyes, and that may be a sign that they’re not as predictable of a team as many believe.
Iowa (13-4, 7-3 Big Ten Conference) made only five 3-pointers, none in the final 15 minutes. Reserve forward Jack Nunge had two of them in the first half; Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp combined for two in the entire game.
Instead, the Hawkeyes relied on superior play from their reserves, dominated in the paint, bullied their way to the free-throw line, and forced the Spartans (8-7, 2-7) to become a jump-shooting team, which is not their strength.
“To be able to close one out when we didn’t even play our best, that’s huge for our confidence going forward,” Garza said after the Hawkeyes snapped a two-game losing streak. “I think this is the start we need to get ourselves on a run.”
Iowa got 39 points from six players who didn’t start the game, four of them freshmen. That’s a season-high for the Hawkeyes in Big Ten play.
Nunge scored 12 points, with eight rebounds. Backup point guard Joe Toussaint had 10 points and six assists. Patrick McCaffery outsprinted the Spartans to score two baskets in transition off of Toussaint feeds, including a dunk that erased Michigan State’s final lead of the game. Tony Perkins, whose role as a reserve guard is growing while starter CJ Fredrick deals with a lower-leg injury, had four points in 13 minutes while showing great determination on defense.
It was that group that came in early, after the Spartans made their first six 3-pointers, and let it be known that things wouldn’t be so easy for the visitors from that point on. Michigan State, a 32.7% 3-point shooting team entering play, made only 6 of 23 from the arc after that. The Spartans lost their fourth consecutive game, and fell to Iowa for the first time in their past six meetings.
“We’re getting three stops right here,” Perkins said of the message from Fran McCaffery and Garza when the backups stepped to the forefront.
“'We can’t let them continue to hit 3s.’ We said, ‘Let’s buckle down, start to communicate and close out.’ And that’s what we did.”
The last time Iowa made only five 3-pointers in a game, it lost 81-69 to Indiana last week and the lack of long-range shooting was viewed as one of the reasons. This time, it was the Hawkeyes’ willingness to stop attempting 3-point shots and hammer the Spartans on the interior that won them the game. Iowa went on a 10-2 run late that consisted of three layups, a putback and two free throws by freshman Keegan Murray.
The Hawkeyes generated 42 points in the paint while getting to the free-throw line 35 times (the fact that they missed 12 of those was problematic). They did this while committing only five turnovers, giving the Spartans a mere two fast-break points.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said it was not his plan going into the game to play the backups so much. But it became apparent that they gave him the best chance to win.
“You want your starters to be comfortable and confident that they’re going to consistently play a certain number of minutes and get a certain number of shots,” McCaffery said.
“The bench came in and really provided energy and aggressiveness.”
Luka Garza joins the 2,000-point club, but laments his missed free throws
Garza became the first Iowa player to ever reach 2,000 points with 800 rebounds Tuesday. Still, he kept talking about the six additional points he felt he should have had. That was how many free throws he missed, something he mentioned four times without being asked.
Only Roy Marble sits ahead of Garza on the Hawkeye scoring list, and his 2,116 points are well within sight. That’s how remarkable Garza has been in his four seasons at Iowa. He needed only 113 games to get those 2,000 points, fewer than any Big Ten player in the last 25 years.
“It definitely feels better that it came with a win like this,” Garza said of his latest milestone. “I’m just very thankful to be here, in this position.”
Garza thanked his teammates. He spoke about how much he’ll always value his time in a Hawkeye uniform. He mentioned the missed free throws one more time. His answer was a combination of humility and a vow to get even better, which is typical for him.
The senior leader of Iowa’s team added this:
“I didn’t come back (to Iowa) to score points. I came back to win games.”
It was left to Fran McCaffery to put Garza’s moment in proper perspective. McCaffery coached against Marble and later welcomed his son, Devyn, to Iowa, where he became a mainstay. Roy Marble died in 2015.
“I wish Roy was here to see it. He would have been a big Luka Garza fan and he would have gone out there and gave him a big hug when he broke the record,” McCaffery said.
“It’s a testament to (Garza’s) character, to his consistency. And when you consider who he’s doing it against, that’s even more impressive.”
Joe Toussaint takes charge, making case for more playing time
Toussaint reached double digits in the scoring column for only the second time this season. Playing time has been hard to come by for the sophomore, who started 21 games a year ago after Bohannon had hip surgery.
But Toussaint said he doesn’t think of himself as a bench player, just as someone who can make a positive impact when called upon. On Tuesday, he didn’t like what he saw from the Hawkeyes’ perimeter defense early.
“We were closing out short, closing out with no effort,” Toussaint said.
“If you just let people shoot the ball, they’re going to make the shot.”
That was the first thing Toussaint wanted to address. The second was to go on the attack in the lane, which he did by canning an early step-back jumper and then drawing two fouls on Michigan State’s Foster Loyer. Toussaint made all four of his free throws in the first half. He connected on two more short jump shots in the second half, creating the space for him to launch over taller defenders.
And he found his friend and roommate, Patrick McCaffery, for those two transition baskets, looking upcourt and knowing that the Spartan defenders would be caught off-guard.
“I always try to find a way to get him the ball because he’s always running,” Toussaint said.
Toussaint played 21 minutes and committed only one turnover. He made his case for more playing time.
Next up for Iowa is No. 7 Ohio State, and it's a quick turnaround
The Michigan State game was a makeup of a Jan. 14 contest that was pushed back when the Spartans had a COVID-19 outbreak. That means the Hawkeyes had only one day off before a 6 p.m. Thursday home game against No. 7 Ohio State (14-4, 8-4), which will be shown on ESPN. That’s not ideal, but that’s the challenge of playing a basketball season during a pandemic.
Garza will tangle with Buckeyes’ sophomore star E.J. Liddell, who is averaging 15.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Liddell, who is four inches shorter than Garza at 6-7, will try to make him come out to the perimeter to defend. Garza is looking forward to that matchup.
But Garza also pointed out that Iowa will need to be much better at guarding the 3-point arc (the Buckeyes shoot 34.3% from there, averaging eight makes per game) and cannot allow 20 offensive rebounds as it did to Michigan State. Ohio State, which has won three in a row, averages 10 offensive boards per game.
“I think it was great for us just to get back in the win column. We all hold ourselves to a really high standard,” Garza said after the Michigan State game.
“(Thursday’s game) is going to be a great one. Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.