Leistikow: Hawkeyes look like a team on a mission, roll into Big Ten Tournament semifinals

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa woke up Friday morning at its downtown hotel to learn it was a projected No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. It arrived to Gainbridge Fieldhouse in the early afternoon to see that top-seeded Illinois had been knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament bracket’s top side, and that ninth-seeded Indiana would await in a possible semifinal.

All the Hawkeyes had to do was take care of some significant business against Rutgers to keep the positive trends rolling.

That they did, with an impressive 84-74 victory against the fourth-seeded Scarlet Knights to avenge an earlier-season loss in New Jersey. 

A Saturday semifinal against the home-state Hoosiers awaits this fifth-seeded Iowa team that doesn't seem to be in any rush to head home early. The Noon CT matchup will be televised on the CBS stage, with Jim Nantz and Grant Hill on the call. 

“There’s going to be a lot of red in there," Iowa fifth-year senior Connor McCaffery said. "It’s going to be a road game. But I’m excited.”

Keegan Murray (15) was sensational yet again as he led the Hawkeyes past Rutgers and into the Big Ten Conference Tournament semifinals.

A notable achievement Friday: For the first time, a Fran McCaffery-coached Iowa team has won two games at the Big Ten Tournament.

Also: For the first time, his Hawkeyes have beaten a better-seeded team at the Big Ten Tournament. 

Now, how about reaching the Hawkeyes' first Big Ten Tournament final since 2006? 

Falling in a 15-5 hole before Friday’s game was barely 4 minutes old wasn’t exactly part of the plan. But even as Iowa (24-9) made uncharacteristic miscues — such as back-to-back bad passes that led to Geo Baker steals — it was lulling Rutgers into playing a faster-paced game.

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Jordan Bohannon and Tony Perkins, the Hawkeyes’ starting backcourt for the last 12 games, pumped in crucial 3-pointers to keep things within reach. Then Keegan Murray did Keegan Murray things, such as a coast-to-coast navigation that led to a one-handed dunk in traffic that was among the top plays (of many) he’s made this season. That slam put Iowa in front, 22-19, and that was just beginning the Hawkeyes’ first-half surge.

"Tip of the hat, Iowa's been playing great basketball," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "Not the way I wanted to play (Friday). I thought we got off to a good start, just couldn't finish the deal against a really good team. Fran's a great coach."

Iowa relentlessly pushed the pace and shot 48.1% for the game. Connor McCaffery had four first-half assists, all to Murray. Two were on lobs for dunks. Another was for an easy bucket in the lane. Another was on a great entry pass that produced the first of back-to-back 3-point plays.

Murray would finish with 18 first-half points on his way to yet another All-American performance: 26 points and eight rebounds, the exact stat line in Thursday's 112-76 rout of Northwestern.

Iowa’s halftime lead was 41-32, already within five points of the full-game total in the Hawkeyes’ 48-46 Jan. 19 loss in Piscataway, New Jersey.

These Hawkeyes are resilient. A 10-point deficit doesn't faze them.

"We can get on a run at any point in the game," Murray said. "So for us it's just keeping the mentality that just never give up, whether we're up 20 or down 20, that's just kind of the mindset we've had these last stretch of games."

Murray finished the day as the single-season scoring leader at Iowa, topping Luka Garza's 747 points assembled in 31 games last season. Murray is now at 750 points, and it took 32 games to get here. (He missed one.)

Not to be outdone, Bohannon had a milestone day of his own, becoming the third Hawkeye to cross the 2,000-point mark in his career. The sixth-year senior finished with 16 points and now has 2,008 for his Iowa career, only trailing Garza (2,306) and Roy Marble (2,116).

Perkins has 16 points of his own. The Indianapolis native is certainly enjoying his homecoming, with two strong days here already. He was 6-for-9 from the floor Friday.

"A lot of people that saw me through high school know what I can do, and now I'm able to bring it to the next level," Perkins said.

How good is this Iowa team at turning the page?

Five days after an abysmal night in Champaign at the free-throw line (10-for-22 in a two-point loss), the Hawkeyes canned 25 of 27 free throws. The Murray brothers, Keegan and Kris, missed five of six free throws down the stretch that night. They haven't missed in the Big Ten Tournament, combining to go 12-for-12.

Remember when the Hawkeyes were a bad rebounding team? They outrebounded a longer Rutgers team, 34-28, on Friday on the heels of a 45-18 edge on the boards vs. Northwestern.

Keegan Murray's interception and coast-to-coast dunk with just under four minutes left snuffed out a late charge from the pesky Scarlet Knights (18-13), who had chopped a 69-52 deficit to 71-63. A Perkins floater, the Murray slam and a Perkins 3 quickly restored Iowa's lead to 15 points, and fans back in Iowa City were surely scrambling to scoop up tickets and make plans to drive East on Saturday morning.

“We expected to play well. And we had plans to be here for a while," said Connor McCaffery, who became an interesting side story as he was ejected after receiving two technical fouls in a game that featured six. "I think we came out and showed that in our first game. And (Friday), also took care of business handily."

Saturday's semi will be the first time since 2017 that Iowa and Indiana have met in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hoosiers outraced Iowa that day in Washington, D.C. by a 95-73 margin in a game the Hawkeyes needed to win to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

This time, a loss wouldn't keep the Hawkeyes out of the NCAAs, but a win could strengthen their grip on a potential No. 5 seed.

The Lunardi bracket rise was a credit to the Hawkeyes’ dominance of late, with a 10-2 run since Feb. 6 with an average margin of victory of 18.5 points. Lunardi wasn’t alone in his Iowa love, but the Hawkeyes were still largely fluttering on the No. 6 line before facing Rutgers.

Tony Perkins, an Indianpolis product, finished with 16 points in his hometown.

Among the teams jockeying to claim the four No. 5 seeds available in the NCAA Tournament: UConn (which seems solidly at 5 after reaching the Big East semifinals), Houston (which defeated Cincinnati on Friday to reach the American Athletic semifinals), LSU (which lost by 12 to Arkansas in the Southeastern quarters Friday), Texas (which made an early exit vs. TCU in the Big 12 Tournament), St. Mary’s (which lost to Gonzaga in the West Coast title game) … and Iowa.

Getting a No. 5 seed is notable history for black-and-gold backers, as Iowa’s two most recent Sweet 16 runs — in 1999 and 1988 — came as a No. 5. Might be a good omen to see Iowa on the 5 line come Selection Sunday. Before Friday’s game against Rutgers, Lunardi had the Hawkeyes pegged to face No. 12 seed South Dakota State in a first-round game in Portland, with UCLA as the No. 4 and potential second obstacle to the Sweet 16.

That NCAA talk, though, can wait until Selection Sunday.

The Hawkeyes have some more business to address on Saturday.

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.

Iowa guard Joe Toussaint, left, shoots the ball as Rutgers forward Ron Harper Jr. defends in the first half of Friday's quarterfinal.