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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had to play walk-on Riley Till and other reserves in key minutes against Oregon. Hear why he did, and what he got: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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NEW YORK, N.Y. — The Iowa men's basketball team found strength in numbers Thursday.

All 10 Hawkeyes who took the court at Madison Square Garden showed a fight that wasn't always there a season ago. The result was a wire-to-wire toppling of No. 13 Oregon, 77-69, in the semifinals of the 2K Classic.

Iowa didn't beat a ranked team all of last winter. The players were well aware.

Before the game, Hawkeye video coordinator Courtney Eldridge pointed out the opportunity they had.

"He brought us in. He's like, 'Hey guys, you didn't do this last year. We worked really hard on everything that people said we couldn't do. So let's go do this. Let's prove people wrong,'" Iowa center Ryan Kriener said of the pregame pep talk.

It worked.

The win puts the Hawkeyes (3-0) into Friday's 6 p.m. championship game against Connecticut here. The Ducks (2-1) will get the matchup with No. 15 Syracuse that most observers assumed would happen. But it will now be a battle for third place.

Iowa won this one with balanced scoring. Point guard Jordan Bohannon led the way with 16 points, sealing things late with free throws. The Hawkeyes made 28-of-30 from the stripe in the second half.

Center Luka Garza had 12 points, including a bold top-of-the key 3-pointer late in regulation when Iowa was struggling for offense.

"You just knew he was going to take it. You knew he was going to make it," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "That was probably the dagger three."

Kriener came off the bench to provide a gritty 11 points, wasting no time in going right at Oregon's 7-foot-2 shot-blocking freshman, Bol Bol. Kriener pump-faked and then buried a short hook shot over Bol. In the second half, he sealed Bol off and got a perfect feed from Jordan Bohannon for a dunk.

"I think it's self-confidence and a motor I have," Kriener said. "I'm not scared of anybody out there. When coach throws me out there, I'm coming in, I'm sprinting hard and I'm taking it at whoever lines up in front of me."

Iowa won with defense. No kidding. The biggest wart on last year's 14-19 season seemed to be rectified, at least for one night, as the Hawkeyes scrambled to contest shots and pull down rebounds, frustrating the Ducks throughout. Oregon made just 23 of 64 field goals (35.9 percent). Iowa owned the boards to the tune of 45-35.

"When we would extend it and they would make a little push back, we always responded. We always got key stops," Kriener said.

But mostly, the Hawkeyes won with togetherness. There was little separating the starting five and the backup five, which was minus injured forward Cordell Pemsl. Each group was effective. 

"That's the critical thing. It was such a team effort. You look at so many guys who contributed. Anything short of that and you don't get the job done," McCaffery said.

Other keys to the Iowa win:

Big lift from the Hawkeye bench

McCaffery has a well-documented reluctance to keep playing anyone who picks up two fouls in the first half. He seemed to reach critical mass late in the first half when five Hawkeyes, four of them starters, all were whistled for a pair of fouls. That put Isaiah Moss, Joe Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery, Tyler Cook and Garza out of commission with 6 minutes, 20 seconds left and Iowa leading 26-22.

The lineup at that point: Bohannon, reserves Maishe Dailey, Nicholas Baer, Kriener and walk-on Riley Till. Forward Cordell Pemsl's injury left McCaffery with only nine scholarship players at his disposal.

How long would McCaffery ride with that lineup? It became a moot point when the unlikely group started taking it to the Ducks. Till immediately blocked a shot; he grabbed three offensive rebounds. Kriener and Dailey hit 3-pointers. The Hawkeyes pushed the lead to 39-24 and even forced an exasperated Dana Altman, Oregon's coach, to call timeout.

It was a brilliant response from five players with their backs to the wall. Iowa entered intermission with a 39-28 lead as a result. And no one picked up a third foul.

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Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon tells reporters why the Hawkeyes were so good in transition defense against Oregon. Listen in: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

 

"Huge shoutout to Riley Till for the way he came in and played. He has a lot to be proud of," Kriener said.

"(I had) no concerns. Those are the guys you go to battle with every day in practice. You know what they're capable of."

Working around Bol Bol

Bol was clearly on the Hawkeyes’ minds throughout the game, especially on the defensive end.

Bol roamed the court and surprised Moss with an early block on what appeared to be an open 3-point attempt.

The Hawkeyes didn’t back down, however. Bohannon later fed Garza for a layup against a smaller defender with Bol working the perimeter. Kriener went at him.

Bol had four first-half blocks, just one in the second half. Iowa showed good awareness of where he was and found ways to work around him.

"We were looking forward to this challenge," Cook said after grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds. "We're competitors. We want to come out here and play against the best."

A parade of 3-pointers

McCaffery has always said that anyone on his team has the green light to shoot 3-pointers. It certainly seemed that way Thursday. Eight of the 10 Hawkeyes who played drained at least one. A few of them were from NBA distance.

"I think we were just moving the ball really well," Bohannon said. "They're pressing obviously, full 40 minutes. We knew we were going to get open shots. It's just a matter of what kind of open shots we were going to get."

Connecticut won the opening game here based on its 3-point marksmanship as well (12-of-21). Both teams must have found the shooting backdrop to their liking.

And now they'll be meeting at 6 p.m. Friday to settle the championship of the 2K Classic.

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