Leistikow: A true team effort delivers Iowa basketball's first Big Ten Tournament title in 16 years

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — To break up the Purdue stranglehold on his team, Fran McCaffery was determined to throw everything and everybody toward the Boilermakers in Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament championship game.

What unfolded at Gainbridge Fieldhouse was a team-wide strategy from McCaffery’s Iowa Hawkeyes in an attempt to chop down the Purdue giants.

McCaffery leaned on everyone, from super sophomore Keegan Murray to his rarely-used big men off the bench. 

Deep Iowa bench players Riley Mulvey, left, and Payton Sandfort aim to defend Purdue's Eric Hunter Jr. during the first half of Sunday's Big Ten Championship.

And, lo and behold, it worked. 

The fifth-seeded Hawkeyes, picked to finish ninth in the conference in a preseason media poll, are your 2022 Big Ten Tournament champions. A 75-66 win against third-seeded Purdue, a team that swept them in two regular-season meetings and has tormented them for years, secured this team's place in Hawkeye history.

"We knew we were destined for greatness," Murray said. "We changed the history of the Iowa program today."

It is Iowa's first league crown since winning this event as a No. 2 seed in 2006, but there were only 11 Big Ten teams then.

"Everyone on the team was so committed this offseason, and we knew that we had something special here. I love these guys, I love coach," said Jordan Bohannon, who finished the week with 13 3-pointers. "Everything that we have done has been the right way, and that's just what makes it so perfect."

The Hawkeyes' reward was a No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region, a notable accomplishment considering that the United Center in Chicago is the Sweet 16 site. The Hawkeyes will head to Buffalo, New York, to face 12th-seeded Richmond on Thursday. Also potentially on their path to the Sweet 16 is Providence, the No. 4 seed and Big East regular-season champion.

The Hawkeyes celebrated the Selection Sunday announcement from their locker room, knowing that if they can win two more games, they'll have a huge contingent of black-and-gold in the Windy City, perhaps against top-seeded Kansas. 

But back to the game.

Murray was spectacular again, finishing with a double-double (19 points, 11 rebounds) in the final regular-season game of the college basketball season. His dunk over the top of Purdue's press was the exclamation point with 51 seconds to go. He even allowed himself to wear a huge grin in the final minute and said to himself, “Oh my God.” The celebration was on. It would be a formality that Murray was the tournament's MVP, with Bohannon also making the all-tournament team. 

But this win required everybody. 

Playing their fourth game in four days, the Hawkeyes' tired legs and undersized roster (for this particular matchup) were showing midway through the second half. With nine minutes remaining, Iowa was 6-for-24 from 3-point range (25%) and was being outrebounded, 37-20. 

Iowa players celebrate with the Big Ten championship trophy after their 75-66 win against Purdue.

Yet a look at the scoreboard, and it was 51-51.

The Hawkeyes, almost inexplicably, were in it.

Unlikely heroes were a theme throughout a tense 40 minutes.

Payton Sandfort, a freshman who didn't even play in the second half of Saturday's semifinal win against Indiana, got key minutes down the stretch and rewarded his coach by knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers to provide Iowa with a 57-51 lead. What a clutch performance from the Waukee product, who finished with 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting.

Fifth-year senior Connor McCaffery, who averages 2.6 points a game, delivered three on one play — maybe THE biggest play — to give Iowa a 66-62 advantage with 2:42 to go after Purdue had cut Iowa's lead to one with a 7-0 flurry. McCaffery's strong finish through contact drew the foul, and his free throw was good.

Clutch free throws and tough defense down the stretch finished off the championship.

The path to a title-game triumph was paved during a gritty first half when Iowa shots weren't falling.

Facing a road-crowd environment for a second straight day, the Hawkeyes grabbed a 35-32 halftime lead by forcing nine Purdue turnovers. Anytime 7-foot-4 Zach Edey or 6-foot-10 Trevion Williams got possession, a big body was on him and a scrappy guard was usually there soon to try to swat the ball away. Iowa amassed eight first-half steals, including two each from Bohannon and Joe Toussaint. The Hawkeyes would force 17 turnovers for the day while committing just six of their own.

Iowa swiped 13 steals for the game, four from Toussaint.

Fran McCaffery used 12 players in the first half, in part because of foul trouble on Kris Murray (second foul at the 8:27 mark) and Filip Rebraca (second foul at 7:04). That meant some run for seldom-used Josh Ogundele and Riley Mulvey, who even tried their hands at 3-pointers. (Ogundele’s was an air ball. Mulvey’s at least hit the rim, though McCaffery was puzzled why he attempted it.)

Nonetheless, everyone had a hand in the Hawkeyes showing that this would be a fight. Toussaint knocked in a tough bucket off the glass to beat the shot clock, Tony Perkins didn’t shy away from the moment, scoring twice in the lane after Purdue closed an eight-point lead to three. He would finish with 11 points; the Indianapolis product was proud to have played four strong games here this week.

Ogundele scored four first-half points, his highest total in meaningful action since Dec. 3 at Purdue — a game in which Keegan Murray didn’t play.

Ten Hawkeyes scored at least three points.

"It's that kind of team," Fran McCaffery said. "I go to Payton, he produces. I go to Connor, he produces. I go to Joe, he produces. Go to Josh, he produces. And it doesn't always happen that way."

The Murray show ended with a bang.

In the 22 previously completed Big Ten Tournaments, there was never a week-long performance like the one we saw from Iowa’s sensational sophomore. Murray entered Sunday needing just nine points to surpass the tournament scoring record of 92 points set by Ohio State’s Duane Washington Jr. last season. He had that achieved by the 7:33 mark of the first half as he knocked down a sweet-looking 3-pointer for a 26-18 Iowa lead.

Murray’s consistency and dominance had been remarkable:

  • 26 points and eight rebounds in a 112-76 win against 12th-seeded Northwestern, in which he played only 20½ minutes.
  • 26 points and eight rebounds in an 84-74 win against fourth-seeded Rutgers, a team that held him to half that in a previous meeting.
  • 32 points and nine rebounds in an 80-77 win against ninth-seeded Indiana, as he drained a career-high eight 3-pointers (on just 10 attempts), each one seemingly bigger than the last.

Murray had played only 28:41 against Purdue in two games this season. He missed one with the ankle injury, had foul trouble in the other. He played 39:50 Sunday to accumulate his double-double and finish the week with 103 points and 36 rebounds.

"I thought we did a good job on him," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "He's one of those guys that's going to score the basketball."

With that first-half 3, Murray also surpassed Washington’s tournament record for field goals (34). Murray made 38 of his 68 shot attempts this week, including 14-for-26 from 3-point land.

And last but not least, Murray on Saturday became the first 800-point scorer in Iowa men’s history and just the eighth in Big Ten history. Murray has the seventh-best single-season total among Big Ten players and second-most this century, his 801 points trailing only Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (874 in 2018-19).

The tournament MVP, Murray said, was a team honor to him. Fittingly.

"I really couldn't have done this without my teammates. ... I had to learn from a lot of guys last year just what it takes to be great at this level," Murray said. "And guys, especially in this tournament, have just really had faith in me. That's all I could ask for.

"I take a bad shot, they tell me to shoot the next one. I miss a shot, they say shoot the next one. That's just the kind of team we are, the kind of guys we have in our locker room. It's a team trophy, it's not an individual one."

A little more history to attend to.

Only three times previously had a team won four games in four days to capture the conference-tournament crown — sixth-seeded Iowa in 2001, eighth-seeded Michigan in 2017 and fifth-seeded Michigan in 2018. It’s tough to do. Iowa is the fourth team to pull it off.

Iowa smashed the mark for 3-pointers made in a single tournament. The Hawkeyes entered Sunday with 40 3-pointers for the week — a tournament-record 19 against Northwestern, a meager seven against Rutgers and 14 more to slay to the Hoosiers. Ohio State (last year) held the previous mark of 35 3s. They were 8-for-28 Sunday to finish with 48 3s for the week.

The Hawkeyes also finished the week with a Big Ten Tournament-record 351 points, toppling the 322 from Ohio State last season with ease.

Oh, and Iowa is the first team since Ohio State in 2011 to sweep the women's and men's tournament championships.

What a winter it's been in Iowa City.

And for McCaffery's 26-9 Hawkeyes, it feels like they've got more to accomplish.

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.