No. 17 Hawkeyes prove their mettle against brutish Rutgers

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Iowa’s sudden penchant for winning basketball games in the final second makes it easy to forget all that occurred in the first 39 minutes, 59 seconds.

Joe Wieskamp’s geometry-defying banked-in 3-pointer was the obvious talking point after the No. 17 Hawkeyes (20-5, 9-5 Big Ten Conference) dropped jaws across the country and dropped Rutgers 71-69 at the RAC on Saturday.

But everything leading up to that moment confirmed what has been apparent most of the season — this is one tough Iowa team, and it will not be pushed around.

“We just didn’t fold. Last year, we folded, definitely, here — and we used that as a motivation,” Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said of a demoralizing 80-64 beatdown at the RAC during a disappointing 14-19 campaign. “We watched a replay of last year’s game and that really frustrated us.”

Iowa forward Tyler Cook (25) drives to the basket past Rutgers center Myles Johnson (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Rutgers is a physical outfit. The Scarlet Knights’ brute strength — and their willingness to use it — is what helps them overcome a lack of offensive skill. On Saturday, it became apparent early that the officials were not going to step in often to soften things up.

Last year, that would have been a problem for Iowa. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes welcomed it, and gave as good as they've got.

“Exactly what we expected. That’s a big, physical team. They’ve got a lot of big guys down low that guard you physical. The way they attack the glass is something only they do in our league,” Iowa power forward Tyler Cook said.

“We were able to match that.”

And not exceed it, mind you. Rutgers gathered 14 offensive rebounds. Iowa answered with 12. The Scarlet Knights committed 18 fouls; Iowa 15. There was an early adjustment period in which the Hawkeyes kept coughing up the basketball before realizing what they could get away with on both ends of the court.

By the second half, even Nicholas Baer, fresh off of a concussion, was throwing himself into the melee, pushing Scarlet Knights out of the way to secure one offensive board, blocking a pair of shots on the other end.

“We figured that out pretty early,” Cook said of the relatively lax officiating. “That’s the kind of stuff that you live for. That’s what college basketball and Big Ten basketball is all about, when you come into an opponent’s arena and they’re letting you play. You’ve got to battle it out. That’s what makes this fun.”

The sellout crowd of 8,000 was already a testament to the importance the Rutgers faithful attached to this game. The fans heartily booed the referees, but also, curiously, the Hawkeyes themselves. That’s respect. Iowa certainly wasn’t reviled in opposing gyms last year.

The crowd didn’t bother Iowa, which is now 4-3 in road games. Rather, the team seemed inspired.

“If you ask any player, that’s how they want it to be called,” Baer said after the hard-earned win. “Players are going to decide the outcome.”

The Hawkeyes did. And not just with one miracle shot.

Baer plays well six days after concussion

Iowa's Nicholas Baer (left) and Luka Garza swallow up Rutgers center Myles Johnson on Saturday at the RAC. The No. 17 Hawkeyes didn't flinch vs. the physical Scarlet Knights this year, earning a 71-69 victory,

Baer, a senior forward, suffered his first concussion late in last Sunday’s win over Northwestern. Iowa had five days between games, which allowed him time to recuperate. By Friday, he was able to practice. By Saturday, he was able to hit a pair of big 3-pointers in the first half when the Hawkeyes were in need of any offense.

“I felt like I was open,” Baer said of his back-to-back 3s that gave the Hawkeyes their first lead of the game. “Obviously, Rutgers is a team that’s going to be playing in the gaps. … It was really important for our shooters to get going.”

There were 13 lead changes, but Rutgers never got ahead by more than six points. Baer pointed to Iowa’s poise in those moments.

“It felt like every time they went on a run, this building got loud,” Baer said. “It felt like every time maybe things were getting out of hand or things were a little hazy, we were able to calm down and come down and get a good possession.”

As for the concussion, Baer admitted to some initial fear.

“Just the first time going through it, not understanding how sensitive things are going to be ... Obviously, you never want to mess with your brain,” he said.

He looked just fine Saturday. Baer led Iowa with a plus-12 rating in his 18 minutes of play.

Moss takes over during key stretch

Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Shaq Carter (13) defends with guard Geo Baker (0) who is called for a foul against Iowa Hawkeyes guard Isaiah Moss (4) during the first half at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa trailed 28-24 late in the first half when shooting guard Isaiah Moss took over. He scored the final eight points to keep the Hawkeyes within 33-32 heading into intermission. Rutgers was overplaying on the perimeter; Moss made the Scarlet Knights pay by driving into the lane.

“Isaiah made some huge plays,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said afterward, acknowledging the importance of a 3-minute stretch when things could have gotten out of hand.

Moss concluded his flurry of points by outmuscling Rutgers forward Ron Harper Jr. for the rebound of a Luka Garza miss, banking in a shot before falling to the floor just ahead of the halftime buzzer. It was a grown man’s play in a game that required them.

Moss finished with 17 points and three steals.

“They were up into me. They were being aggressive on the ball, so I found the opportunity to just drive past them,” said Moss, who also seemed to thrive in the no-holds-barred style of play.

“A few of times I got in there, I came to shot-fake — tried to draw a few fouls.”

He drew five. It was another reminder that Moss can be a handful in the open court, a unique gift among this group of Hawkeyes.