Leistikow: Latest win against ranked foe extends Hawkeyes' winter wave of 'home cooking'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza scored 25 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, blocked four shots and delivered one spot-on quote Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“I think we’re slept on,” Iowa’s junior center said, “as one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten.”

Garza's onto something.

Because there's definitely been plenty of Carver magic coming to the surface in Iowa City this winter.

The top-ranked wrestling team went 7-0 at home, including a decibel-pounding win against No. 2 Penn State, and set an NCAA record by averaging 12,568 fans per dual.

The women’s team just capped its second straight unbeaten season at Carver and has rattled off 36 straight home wins, second only in the nation to mighty Baylor.

And the men’s team has morphed into a home force in perhaps the most unexpected winter success of them all.

This Iowa team, including Cordell Pemsl, has delighted the home crowds this year with an infectious energy and outpouring of emotions.

Garza only has to go back to his freshman season to remember the men's team being bad, and the crowds apathetic and often paltry.

Saturday’s 77-68 win against No. 14 Penn State before a sold-out crowd of 15,056 was Iowa's 13th straight home win and the latest example of riding a wave of good play and energy past a top-25 opponent.

Iowa improved to 6-0 against ranked foes in Carver this season. It’s beaten Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, Illinois, Ohio State and now Penn State in the last 50 days. That doesn’t even count a furious rally to take down rival Wisconsin.

The only loss in 37 competitions in this building across the three major winter sports was an early-season men's loss to DePaul. 

Athletics director Gary Barta smiles as he reflects about the success, especially considering winter storms stifled the size of some crowds for three key men's games here — but not the energy inside.

“Our fans have been amazing,” Barta said. “Even if it’s not been sold out … it was still loud. And it looks like the fans are having fun.”

From the A.D.’s chair, this was something Barta has seen building with women’s coach Lisa Bluder (20th season), wrestling coach Tom Brands (14th season) and men’s coach  Fran McCaffery (10th season).

"They still have to go out and do it," Barta said, "and our student-athletes ... are certainly achieving at a really high level.”

So yes, these are good teams we’re talking about. And good teams win a lot of games anywhere.

But what other factors could be in play at such a run of home dominance?

“Carver is not the easiest place to shoot if you don’t shoot in here all the time,” Bluder said Friday. “We’ve got a real depth (behind the baskets).”

She’s onto something.

Shooting at Carver is second-nature for Iowa basketball players; they often practice on the main floor.

After canning seven of 17 3-point attempts Saturday, the Hawkeye men are shooting 41.5% from 3-point range (78 of 188) in nine Big Ten home games this season. Their opponents are 29.1% (68 of 234). That's a staggering difference.

On the Big Ten road? Iowa is a woeful 26.8% (56 of 204) from deep, compared to its home opponent going 37.5% (84 of 224).

Another factor?

“You start feeling that moxie … that we’re going to win this game no matter what,” Bluder said in a comment that can apply to the men’s team, too. “It’s got to creep into the minds of the visitors as well.”

You could see Penn State feeling the Carver heat on Saturday, even as the Hawkeyes were getting outplayed in the early going.

The crowd roared to one of its loudest crescendos of the day when Cordell Pemsl tapped in a third-effort bucket late in the first half to slice Penn State’s lead to 30-26. CJ Fredrick followed with a doozy of a driving layup. By halftime, the Hawkeyes had clawed their way to a 35-34 lead.

The opening stages of the second half got the crowd up again, and ultimately flattened the visitors.

Connor McCaffery’s half-opening 3 was followed by easy buckets from Joe Wieskamp and Garza. Throw in just two empty Penn State possessions, and the Hawkeyes had surged to a 42-34 edge and forced a Nittany Lions timeout just 96 seconds into the second half.

Penn State got no closer than six points after that. Two Nittany Lion players got technical fouls. An impressive team that has won games this season in Ann Arbor, East Lansing and West Lafayette was outmatched in Iowa City.

“I think we let the emotions get to us a little bit,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “At this point of the season it’s all mindset, it’s all mental conditioning and mental fitness, if you can plow through.”

That’s a really good point.

In seasons past, maybe part of some late Iowa fades could be chalked up to an inability to push through the mental fatigue that always hits this time of year. But this Hawkeye team has a different vibe, an obvious toughness.

It’s a group that cheers for each other and feeds off crowd energy, whether it’s Garza flexing for the crowd or Ryan Kriener blowing a kiss after a made basket.

“I’m an emotional player, and we have a lot of guys who are emotional players,” Garza said. “We feed off that. (The crowd) gives me energy to keep going.”

Adds Kriener: "Sometimes you just need a little extra edge, a little extra home-court advantage. Just get some bounces to go your way, and it makes all the difference."

No. 17 Iowa (20-9 overall, 11-7 Big Ten) improved to 9-0 at home in conference play. With a win Tuesday against Purdue, it would become the first Hawkeye team to run the conference table since 2006 — when Big Ten schedules were 16 games, not 20 like they are now.

That team, which won the Big Ten Tournament, was a special one.

This one is shaping up to be one, too.

“We just have a connection that I’ve never been a part of playing basketball,” Fredrick said. “The way we celebrate when we see our brothers making shots, it’s really fun to play with a group like this.”

Good athletes. Positive energy. Carver magic. It's all going hand-in-hand at Iowa this winter.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.