Leistikow: Iowa basketball's toughness touted in must-have win against Penn State
IOWA CITY — The flight home early Thursday morning from Rutgers was especially brutal for Jordan Bohannon. The sixth-year Iowa men’s basketball player was beating himself up over missed shots — unthinkable air balls included for the Big Ten Conference's all-time leader in 3-pointers — in a crushing two-point loss decided by a questionable foul call.
The Hawkeyes’ plane landed at the Cedar Rapids Airport at 3 a.m., and to top it off, Bohannon’s car wouldn’t start in bone-chilling temperatures. Thankfully, two trusty team managers (shout-out to Ben Sheridan and Jackson McLaughlin) helped give Bohannon's car a jump, and he was back in Iowa City by 4 a.m.
But Bohannon couldn’t stop dwelling on his cold shooting of late, and he knew another game was coming up soon. We've all been there; developing a worry that something we badly wanted might be slipping away.
“It was a long night. I played terribly, personally,” Bohannon said. “This was probably one of the first times in my career where I doubted myself.”
Cue Saturday afternoon’s home game against Penn State, with a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd for the first time this season.
In a savvy move by a veteran assistant coach, Kirk Speraw pulled Bohannon into his office and showed him some big shots he’s made over the course of his (now) NCAA-record 162-game career.
Bohannon said that film session helped him regain the swagger he’d been missing in Iowa’s previous three games, when he shot 7-for-33 from the floor, including 5-for-25 from 3-point range.
So when the ball came Bohannon’s way early in Saturday's second half, about 30 feet from the basket at the tip of mid-court Herky’s beak, his confident quick release returned. A hustle play from Joe Toussaint made it all happen. After an offensive rebound, Toussaint found Bohannon for the shot he’s made countless times. Bohannon buried the 30-footer to give Iowa a six-point lead, and Penn State wouldn’t get closer than three points the rest of the way in a 68-51 Hawkeye win before 15,056 fans.
Bohannon would play all 20 minutes in the second half and finish with a team-best rating of plus-24. Though his 11 points (on 3-for-7 shooting from 3) were right at his career average, Bohannon felt like he was back. And so were the Hawkeyes, in a win they had to have.
The Hawkeyes (14-5 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten) showed a healthy batch of toughness after the crushing loss at Rutgers.
“They were the tougher team tonight,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “And they showed their makeup in terms of who they are.
“I say it all the time: The tougher team sets the rules. We were probably the tougher team in the first half, and they flipped it. They were the tougher team in the second half.”
That’s something you’ve got to love to hear if you’re Fran McCaffery. The 12th-year coach has had teams in the past that were described (unfairly or not) as soft. But this young team of nice guys possesses grit. Even in the slog Wednesday at Rutgers, when the Hawkeyes shot a dismal 27.9%, they fought to the finish — scoring a late steal and clutch bucket to tie it at 46-46 before referee Courtney Green whistled an outcome-deciding foul call on Keegan Murray with two seconds to go.
Think back to the game at Virginia, on Dec. 9, when Toussaint’s bucket with eight seconds left and Patrick McCaffery’s last-gasp block swiped a 75-74 road win. Think back to Sunday’s 81-71 win at Minnesota, when Iowa’s 23-point lead shrunk to three before Murray delivered a stone-cold 3-pointer in the final minute.
This Iowa team isn’t playing lights-out basketball, having shot just 40.7% Saturday.
But it’s continuing to show it won't go down without fighting.
“When people hit us in the mouth,” Bohannon said, “we’ve got to hit them right back.”
Don't be fooled by the cool demeanors of Keegan and Kris Murray. The Cedar Rapids twins were aggressive and seemingly everywhere in Saturday’s second half. They combined for 20 points and 10 rebounds after halftime as the Hawkeyes outhustled the Nittany Lions (8-8, 3-5). What was once a 22-6 rebounding deficit for Iowa became a 37-34 edge in the final box score.
“We’re a really tough group,” Kris Murray, who scored 13 points, said with a grin. “We’re not going to let anyone out-tough us.”
That needs to be a trait that continues down the stretch for the Hawkeyes. Especially on defense.
Though Iowa completed a 1-1 week, it held back-to-back Big Ten opponents to 51 or fewer points for the first time since 2015. In allowing just 99 points in 80 minutes, Iowa climbed from No. 160 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings to No. 92.
It's not time to declare Iowa a defensive juggernaut yet. But, hey, it’s progress.
“Our defensive intensity has been a lot better, I would say, the last couple games,” Kris Murray said. “We feed off that, getting more and more stops in a row. When we do that, our defense is really good. We’re all connected right now, and that’s a good thing.”
A few weeks ago, when Iowa was 1-3 in Big Ten play, it felt like it needed to win three of its next four to get back on track. The Hawkeyes have done just that. Now comes a chance to get the season’s first signature win, Thursday at home against Purdue.
Bohannon will be ready.
One of the reasons he had been struggling of late was because he’s been putting too much pressure on himself to make his final season a perfect one. With a star in Keegan Murray (15 points, eight rebounds, three blocks on Saturday) and a wide range of capable supporting cast members, himself included, Bohannon believes this team has the makeup to deliver the program's first Sweet 16 since 1999.
“I think we have the group that can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament,” Bohannon said.
They’ve got to get there first.
Saturday’s win — and the way they won it, without their best stuff — was an encouraging sign that they can.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.