Leistikow: Inspired bench play sparks Iowa basketball rout of Maryland

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — After Keegan Murray released a left-handed shot just before the halftime buzzer and it curled into the basket on one end of the Xfinity Center court, a stampede instantly charged toward him from the other end.

More than a dozen gleeful Hawkeye players raced to greet Murray, roaring and chest-bumping to express their approval. The smooth freshman’s bank-shot bucket put a resounding punctuation mark on a merciless Iowa first-half run. And although there were no fans here, it almost sounded like a Hawkeye home game just outside the nation’s capital.

The seventh-ranked Hawkeyes rode their feisty bench in a decisive stretch that led to a 89-67 win against Maryland. A team not known for their defense seemed to have fun playing good defense, which turned into a relentless stream of offense.

Keegan Murray (15) got multiple hero's greetings after his big first-half buckets at Maryland.

“When we’re able to get stops, then get out and run," all-American center Luka Garza said, "that’s when we are at our best."

It was the most points Iowa's ever scored against Maryland and its first win here since 2017. Iowa is now 10-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten Conference heading into Sunday’s rematch with No. 17 Minnesota, which handed the Hawkeyes their lone league loss in Minneapolis on Christmas Day.

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While Garza was dominant as usual, the first star of Thursday’s game was the Hawkeye bench.

Coach Fran McCaffery went searching for answers early in the first half, calling an uncharacteristic two timeouts in the game’s first 5 minutes, 42 seconds. He correctly thought the Iowa defense was "too casual."

"Timeout. Get on 'em. Timeout again. Alright, we’re making some changes," McCaffery said, recounting his thought process to plug in his bench. "… I didn’t scream and yell or ridicule. It was, ‘We need better.’ And we got better. And then we got better again."

A 19-9 Iowa deficit became a 29-19 Iowa lead. Yes, folks, that’s a 20-0 run. Those don't generally happen in Big Ten basketball.

But this Iowa team showed it can be that good.

Here are some good things that happened during that 20-0 flurry.

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (30) passes the ball as he is defended by Maryland guard Darryl Morsell (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Jan. 7 in College Park, Maryland.

It started with a Connor McCaffery 3-pointer from the right wing. McCaffery entered the game just 4-for-20 for the season from deep; he made the Terps pay for leaving him alone this time, and that proved notable — as he would later be the lone starter on the floor during much of the run. (He finished with a career-high 10 assists, too.)

Jack Nunge, within 10 seconds of entering the game, splashed home another 3. Nunge was struggling, too, from deep — 4-for-22 entering Thursday — but calmly cut Maryland’s lead to 19-15. His heady feed to Murray and alert put-back tied the score at 19-19.

Patrick McCaffery put Iowa in front, 21-19, a lead it would not surrender. The redshirt freshman has scoring prowess and is showing it more and more as the season progresses.

Joe Toussaint was cat-quick, collecting four steals in the first half and a career-high six for the game. He was the biggest disrupter for the Terrapins, who — get this — didn’t score for 15 straight possessions. They went 0-for-11 from the floor and committed five turnovers while going without a point for 8:47 of court time.

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A big contributor during the 20-0 run? The bench behind the bench. Garza noted that guys like Austin Ash, Nico Hobbs, Michael Baer and Josh Ogundele were actively hollering to Iowa's five on-court players, pointing out where Maryland players were moving. In a quiet arena on that end of the floor, that's helpful.

“I have to give a big shoutout to the bench. They were huge in that run," Connor McCaffery said. "Everyone’s talking. That’s that biggest thing in the zone, where are the people? ... You know when guys are in the corners, when guys are cutting back-door."

So, Iowa got tap-aways and quick buckets — from the likes of Murray.

He was terrific, but you don't need me to tell you that. He had three dunks in the first half, each one seemingly bringing more thunder. The last one, a one-hander on a fast-break run-out, sent Iowa to a 39-24 lead. It’s hard to appreciate the effect of his length if you can’t see it in person. You will, someday. And when his last-second shot to end the half sank, Iowa had completed the first half on a 35-7 run. Almost like one of the Iowa football blowouts from this past season. The celebration ensued. 

“It’s the best feeling in the world as a coach, when you see the guys loving up the guys that are doing well and encouraging them," Fran McCaffery said. "... You don’t want to see guys over there pouting. We just don’t have that. Those guys are jumping and screaming and high-fiving and chest-bumping. In a year where there’s nobody in the stands, I think it’s even more important you have your brothers supporting you like that.”

CJ Fredrick (who scored two points in 18 minutes) sat the final 14:18 of the first half. Joe Wieskamp (held to six points in 16 minutes) sat most of that time, too, and didn’t have a first-half point. McCaffery sent the talented pair a message after some poor early defense as Maryland sizzled to a 7-for-10 shooting start. Those two will be fine going forward. But it's nice to know they've got good backup.

One of the best things about this Iowa bench?

Its first inclination is to make hustle plays; that’s great for team defense that we know needs to be better for this Iowa team to be Final Four-worthy.

The bench’s second priority is to get the ball to Garza. That's a good plan, too. Garza finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists in his return to his home Washington, D.C., area.

Members of the Iowa Hawkeyes kneel before tip off against the Maryland Terrapins at Xfinity Center on January 07, 2021, in College Park, Maryland.

And Fran McCaffery's bench can score when needed, too.

Murray had 12 points and five rebounds on 6-for-9 shooting. He had a team-best plus-30 rating, meaning Iowa outscored Maryland by 30 points during the 20:46 that he was on the court. Patrick McCaffery added 10 of his own and was plus-22. He buried a pair of second-half 3-pointers to continue putting the Terrapins (6-6, 1-5) away.

And when the bench is scoring, the big guns naturally follow. Jordan Bohannon canned six 3-pointers, five in the second half, to score 18 points. It's extremely encouraging that Iowa is visibly improving by the week, not regressing as has been the case with some past McCaffery squads.

“That’s what is so great about this team," Bohannon said. "We have a lot of guys that just know their roles. When they come in, they do just whatever they can to get the win.”

This was a clinic. Iowa led by as many as 26 points in the second half. 

When the final horn sounded, there was no more hooting and hollering. Because this one had been over for a while.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.