There was defense. There was rebounding. And as always, there was Peter Jok.
It’s a simple formula for the Iowa men’s basketball team these days, and the Hawkeyes couldn’t have followed it any better than they did Saturday in crushing Northern Iowa 69-46 in the opener of the Hy-Vee Classic at Wells Fargo Arena.
Jok had nine field goals, including the stepback jumper that signaled his Hawkeyes were about to step on the Panthers’ throats.
Northern Iowa (5-5) made 15 field goals, shooting 26.8 percent from the field and never mounting a serious challenge.
“They did a great job defending me in the first 10 minutes. I couldn’t get a shot off, or every time I came off a screen they doubled me or when I posted they doubled me,” Jok said. “I just let the game come to me. I saw an opening in that stretch and I just took the opportunity. They was falling.”
Jok’s textbook stepback swish came over a helpless Jeremy Morgan and stretched Iowa’s lead to 24-13 with 5:04 left in the first half. He smiled and yelped at his teammates on the bench while he retreated downcourt as Panthers coach Ben Jacobson called timeout. The pause didn’t cool off Jok, who promptly grabbed a defensive rebound and buried a 3-pointer, on his way to a game-high 21 points before an appreciative crowd in his hometown of Des Moines.
Northern Iowa never again cut the deficit to single digits.
“When Pete’s hitting shots, we’re tough to beat and he was hitting today,” Iowa forward Nicholas Baer said of Jok, who averages 23.5 points. “That level of difficulty that he’s hitting is so difficult. So whenever we can get Pete rolling, Pete’s such an unselfish player that he’ll make plays for other people.”
Baer came off the bench to record his first career double-double, with 11 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Iowa (6-5) outboarded UNI 43-29.
Cordell Pemsl made all four of his field goals and added 10 points for the Hawkeyes, who have won three straight and now own convincing victories over the two in-state rivals they will meet this year. Iowa handled Iowa State 78-64 on Dec. 8.
As in that game, it was the defense that carried Iowa. Jok has eclipsed 20 points seven times this season, so that’s nothing new. But the Hawkeyes had been steamrolled by high-level opponents earlier this winter. Not anymore. The 46 points by the Panthers, an NCAA Tournament team last season, were the fewest Iowa has allowed so far.
“We just beat a really good team,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “They didn’t play well (Saturday), but the reason they didn’t play well was because we defended the way we did (Saturday).
“If we had defended them the way we had been earlier in the year, it would have been a completely different game. Our rotations were better, our ball pressure was better, our rebounding was better. Because the thing that you know is they’re going to defend you. And you don’t always know you’re going to be able to shoot a good number against them. So there was a couple stretches there where we weren’t scoring, but neither were they. I think that’s a big step for us.”
The result was Iowa’s largest margin of victory against the Panthers since a 74-42 thrashing in 2000. Northern Iowa beat the Hawkeyes in this building two years ago 56-44.
Iowa was especially impressive at limiting clean looks for Morgan, the Panthers’ senior star. He scored five quick points to give Northern Iowa its lone lead, and it appeared that he was still sizzling from his last game, when Morgan scored 38 second-half points in a win over North Dakota.
But he didn’t score again in the first half, by which time Iowa led 34-16. Morgan finished with 14 points, on 4-of-13 shooting.
“He’s their best player. Our plan was just not let him get open touches and make it hard, make him take contested shots,” said Jok, one of a few Hawkeyes who took turns hounding Morgan. “As a group, I think we did a great job of that.”
Iowa next hosts North Dakota at 8 p.m. Tuesday.