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Iowa center Ryan Kriener made his first career start Sunday. What was he most proud of? Hear him explain: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ryan Kriener found out Friday that he was going to make his first career start for the Iowa men’s basketball team Sunday.

“I tried to play it cool,” he said. “But as soon as I turned around I had the biggest grin on my face.”

Kriener’s 70th career game was arguably his best, starting with the 3-pointer he drilled on the opening possession. He scored 14 points and blocked three shots to help the No. 20 Hawkeyes drop No. 23 Nebraska 93-84 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“It was really awesome to get my first start here at my dream school,” said Kriener, a junior center from Spirit Lake.

Kriener is averaging 5.3 points per game. Coach Fran McCaffery said he’s finally free of the small injuries that have dogged him throughout his time at Iowa. He started Kriener because Luka Garza is limited by a sprained left ankle. But it’s clear that Kriener’s role will increase even when Garza is back to 100 percent. He played a season-high 25 minutes Sunday.

“Everybody came in ready to play. It started with that guy right there,” Tyler Cook said after the game, pointing at Kriener. “He’s probably one of the hardest-working guys we’ve got wearing an Iowa uniform.”

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Kriener showed a deft touch with his hook shot and some of the feistiness that his teammates witness in practices against Nebraska. He prides himself on his ability to set hard screens to free up those teammates for open shots.  

He delivered one on Cornhuskers guard Glynn Watson Jr. in transition that drew the ire of another Nebraska player, who ran to tell Kriener he thought it was a dirty play.

“It wasn’t,” Kriener clarified. “They just didn’t call it out.”

“We’ve got a lot of talented guys on this team and if I can get them open, that helps the team a lot,” Kriener added. “I think that’s something that’s really underrated in my game, that guys kind of feed off my screening action or the cutting action.”

Iowa (12-3, 1-3 Big Ten Conference) was in desperate need of a win in league play, with a Wednesday trip to Northwestern up next. Kriener helped deliver it, one screen at a time.

Garza returns with an assist to Cook

Garza had missed Iowa’s previous three games and was considered questionable to play Sunday. So it was a mild surprise to see him jog to the scorer’s table eight minutes into the contest. He missed his first shot attempt, but quickly grabbed a defensive rebound and made a layup shortly after. Garza had eight points in eight first-half minutes. He played only two minutes after intermission.

“It’s just great to see him with a smile on his face again,” McCaffery said.

“I just felt like I needed to give him a chance (Sunday). He worked too hard to get back. Kriener was playing so well, I considered not playing him. But I just felt like this kid is champing at the bit. He’s over there riding the bike. He can’t wait to get in the game. We’re going to put him in, see what he does. He was great.”

Garza was wearing some spiffy new shoes. They were a gift from Cook, who picked them up at a summer camp in Los Angeles. Both players were size 18s.

“After I sprained my ankle in those last shoes, I think none of the coaches want me to wear them anymore,” Garza said with a laugh. “They’ve got better ankle support on them.”

Cook was happy to help.

“Every time he puts them on, I’m like, ‘You know you’re playing well because of me, right?’” Cook said.

Garza is hoping to play more minutes Wednesday as he eases his way toward having a fully functional ankle. He said he doesn’t quite have the lift he usually does, and he could sense that on one play where he tried to grab an offensive rebound, but could only manage to tip the basketball to teammate Isaiah Moss.

“Just a little bit of balance, just some strength in general and definitely my second jump isn’t quite where it is,” Garza said when asked what his limitations were.

At 6-foot-11, Garza is a big presence for the Hawkeyes. But his significance goes beyond statistics. He plays with such passion that any minutes he can provide seem to lift those around him.

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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery says he rewarded Luka Garza with playing time Sunday because he'd been working so hard to recover from sprained ankle. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Switch to zone hampers 'Huskers

Iowa allowed 84 points, so it may seem odd to talk about its defensive effort. But the Hawkeyes were shredded for 98 points by the Cornhuskers in their lone meeting last season.

On that evening, Iowa played a man-to-man scheme and paid the price. On Sunday, Iowa started out the same way, then went to a 3-2 zone to better cover the 3-point arc. It seemed to cause Nebraska some confusion. The Cornhuskers shot a season-low 17 percent on 3-pointers (4-of-23). Guards Watson and James Palmer missed all 10 of their tries.

“I didn’t love our zone attack,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “Every time you don’t make 3s, you’re going to struggle with that.”

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