Leistikow: This Iowa basketball team finding toughness and joy it once lacked

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

STATE COLLEGE,  Pa. — What a difference a year makes.

Jordan Bohannon remembers. Luka Garza remembers.

The Iowa basketball team was not only beaten here in the Bryce Jordan Center by Penn State last Feb. 3, it was run out of the building.

On Wednesday, it was the Hawkeyes doing the running, the talking … and the winning.

The team that folded against the Nittany Lions a year ago fought to the finish this time in an 89-82 win that needs to be classified as impressive.

“That wasn’t a fun game (last year). They embarrassed us,” Bohannon recalled of an 82-58 loss to a team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. “We knew we wanted to come in here and get a win after what they did to us.”

Iowa rallied from an eight-point second-half deficit, one week after rallying from seven down at Northwestern for its first road win of the season. 

Jordan Bohannon, right, celebrates with walk-on Austin Ash after the Hawkeyes slayed Penn State, 89-82, with a game-finishing 8-0 run.

The Hawkeyes closed this one on an 8-0 run filled with clutch plays and key stops — neither of which happened too much during last year's 14-19 season.

Two games at this one mostly-empty arena (there were maybe 3,000 people among the announced attendance of 7,733) exemplifies the growth that Iowa has made in 12 months.

A year ago, Iowa didn’t have the fight it needed to win on the Big Ten Conference road.

Now, it’s showing it does.

And the Hawkeyes even did it without leading scorer Tyler Cook, who missed the game with a left ankle injury.

“It’s all about perseverance,” said Garza, who scored 14 of his game-high 22 points in Iowa’s monster second half. “Last year, when teams made runs is where we just dropped off.”

Garza had his own story of redemption in this game after a technical foul early in the second half.

After the sophomore center’s impressive driving lay-in put Iowa ahead 52-49, he said something that an official deemed to be taunting. That turned into a five-point possession for Penn State (two free throws and a 3-pointer) and put Garza on the bench with his third personal foul.

Suddenly, Penn State’s lead was 54-52.

Garza didn’t return until Iowa trailed, 68-60, with 11 minutes, 5 seconds to go. The Hawkeyes missed their gritty big man. They gave up 19 points during his 5:49 on the bench.

You can imagine how much Garza was stewing while he sat near coach Fran McCaffery — and a few feet in front of his father, Frank.

“I realized I had to make up for my mistake,” Garza said. “The coaches all told me to stay the course.”

Once he returned, he dominated with a variety of interior moves against an increasingly weary Penn State defense.

Garza had a shaky first half. He was blocked twice by Mike Watkins. He was twice called for three-second lane violations. Then the technical foul.

But he persevered.

“He got me in the first half a little bit with a couple blocks. I knew I had to adjust,” Garza said. “When I get to my moves, I’m comfortable and confident. I feel pretty good I can score.”

Without Cook, Ryan Kriener stepped up in a big way. His 15 points and career-high five assists even featured a high-flying dunk, although not quite with Cook’s usual style points.

“He probably would’ve dunked it on two more guys or something like that,” Kriener joked.

And then there was Bohannon.

The junior guard had the final say in this one — once and for all silencing the incessant taunting of the Penn State student section throughout the game. It was his cold-blooded 3-pointer from 25 feet — just left of the midcourt Nittany Lion logo, and in front of those jeering student — with 36 seconds to go that extended Iowa’s lead to 86-82.

Just another ‘Bo’ bomb.

He said he never thought twice about chewing more time off the clock, even though Iowa still had 14 seconds to shoot.

“Come on,” he joked, “you guys have seen me play for three years now. That’s all I do.”

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery’s thoughts?

“I would have been surprised if he didn’t shoot it,” he said, before making his own wisecrack. “That’s great coaching.”

The Hawkeyes — now 15-3 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten Conference with a four-game winning streak — deserve to be smiling.

It was quite the opposite story a year ago. I remember Bohannon, who had been sick during the day, being exhausted and lifeless after the humbling loss here in Happy Valley.

Now, this Hawkeye team is full of life.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.