The Iowa coach loved his team's fast start and ball movement in their 83-63 victory at Rutgers on Tuesday. Mark Emmert / The Register
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The smiles were back, along with the fist-pumps and the chest-bumps and everything that winning breeds.
An Iowa basketball team that looked forlorn during a three-game losing streak has rediscovered how fun the sport can be when everyone is sharing in the success.
The Hawkeyes not only earned their first road victory of the season Tuesday, they stepped all over Rutgers, blitzing to an early lead and coasting home with an unexpectedly easy 83-63 victory before an announced crowd of 4,389 at the RAC.
Iowa (13-10, 5-5 Big Ten Conference) climbed out to a 7-0 lead, forced Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell to call a timeout, and then got even better. Pikiell vainly tried two more clock-stoppages in the first 12 minutes only to see the visitors go up by 25 points en route to a rout.
It came on the heels of an 85-72 home win over Ohio State, giving the Hawkeyes their first winning streak in more than two weeks. Both victories were marked by superb ball movement. Iowa assisted on 24 of its 30 baskets Tuesday.
“That three- or four-game stretch where we were getting down and having to fight our way back every game, we were just playing so tentative and cautious of making mistakes. And we weren’t trusting one another,” Iowa freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said after coming off the bench to record 15 points and seven rebounds. “We came out these last two games with a different mindset. We came out eager to want to play defense, eager to get the ball and know that we’re going to beat whoever’s guarding us and beat the other team.”
Iowa was 0-5 in road games this season, four of the losses by 12 or more points. It was a narrative that nagged at the players through a winter of highs and lows.
Finally, they need listen to it no more.
The freshman forward talks about the winning formula his team may have discovered in the Hawkeyes' 83-63 win over the Scarlet Knights on Tuesday. Mark Emmert / The Register
“It was on us. We were the reason that it was happening,” Pemsl said. “We obviously heard it, and we didn’t want to continue that into February.”
The Hawkeyes achieved that just in time. And it happened with star guard Peter Jok sidelined again with an aching back. The Big Ten’s leading scorer at 21 points per game celebrated on the bench, whooping it up with each basket.
Iowa got 17 points from point guard Jordan Bohannon, 11 from shooting guard Isaiah Moss and 10 from power forward Tyler Cook. The top four scorers were freshmen. Sophomores Nicholas Baer and Brady Ellingson each had five assists. Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery used 12 players, and 10 of them had at least one assist.
It was exactly what he wanted to see against Rutgers (12-11, 1-9), which boasted the league’s second-best field-goal percentage defense entering play (39.1 percent) and which had pushed Iowa to the brink before losing in Iowa City 68-62 on Jan. 8.
“When you face a team like that, you’ve got to move the ball,” McCaffery said. “If you try to score on one pass, two passes, it’s just not going to work.”
Iowa led 48-30 at halftime, the most points it’s scored in a half in league play. The Hawkeyes shot 11-for-18 from the 3-point arc, for a 61.1 percent clip that was the best this year. The 83 points were the second-most the normally stingy Scarlet Knights had allowed.
There was never a moment when Iowa didn’t have the answer Tuesday.
Bohannon said it felt like old times for a team that features six freshmen.
‘We kind of got away from what we came here with. We were a lot of free-spirited guys that we just didn’t really care what happened. We just stayed positive no matter what,” he said of Iowa’s success earlier in the season.
“We had a little rut there where we weren’t really confident in each other and with ourselves, especially. But these last two games kind of opened our eyes up, what we’re all capable of doing and we’re all a lot more positive around each other, a lot more confident around each other. And I think it’s going to lead to big things later in the season.”
The season resumes with Iowa hosting Nebraska at 1 p.m. Sunday. McCaffery said Jok should be back in the starting lineup for that one.
If so, he’ll be rejoining a different team, one hard-nosed enough to win a Big Ten road game and loose enough to enjoy every moment of it.
“I think now that we have a taste of what it’s like to win on the road as a young team, it makes you want to get that next one even more,” Baer said.