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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery talks Connor, Garza, Toussaint and more. Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — How do you score 85 points against the stingiest defense in the Big Ten Conference?

How do you do it despite an eight minute stretch without making a single field goal?

The Iowa Hawkeyes found a way Wednesday. Just like they always seem to this season.

“It's ball movement and decision-making,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team rallied twice to hold off Rutgers 85-80 before an announced crowd of 10,006 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“You can't come down on Rutgers and make one pass, shot. ‘I'm just going to put my head down and go.’ … So it's understanding that you have to be able to play through that physicality without losing your composure. I thought that's what we did in order to get 85 points against … as impressive a team defensively as I've seen on film.”

The Scarlet Knights (14-5, 5-3 Big Ten) hadn’t allowed more than 80 points all season. They were giving up only 59 per game.

And then No. 19 Iowa (14-5, 5-3) filleted them with 52.7% shooting to win a fourth consecutive game. It was a third straight home win over a ranked opponent (Maryland and Michigan were the previous victims).

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Luka Garza, as usual, led the way for the Hawkeyes with 28 points and 13 rebounds. Joe Wieskamp added 18 points. Freshman point guard Joe Toussaint had his most impactful performance of the season with 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Ryan Kriener came off the bench to score 11 points, his third consecutive game in double digits.

Iowa has the Big Ten’s best offense, at 80 points per game. And that offense was at its most impressive Wednesday.

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Hawkeyes center Luka Garza explains what he thinks it'll take for Iowa to stay relevant in the Big Ten title race. Hawk Central

Another late lead blown, but another gutsy rally by Hawkeyes

That doesn’t mean things were as easy as they sometimes appeared. Iowa lost a lead in the first half because of sloppy play that resulted in eight turnovers and 17 Rutgers points.

And, for the second straight home game, the Hawkeyes lost a lead in the second half, as well. A Toussaint layup with 10:25 remaining gave Iowa a 69-59 edge and had a fantastic home crowd rocking. It seemed like the Hawkeyes were cruising.

Then came the field goal drought. Rutgers claimed a 77-76 lead with 2:25 left.

CJ Fredrick drove for a layup for the seventh and final lead change of the night. Wieskamp stepped out for a 3-pointer. Connor McCaffery drained all four of his free throws.

Iowa prevailed again, showing a mental fortitude that can carry it a long way this season.

“When a team kind of frays away during those moments, that’s when teams start to kind of unwind,” Garza said. “A key for me as a leader is to try to make sure everybody’s together, especially in the timeouts, and just continue to instill confidence in everybody and making sure we keep coming at them.”

Iowa’s lead was down to 76-72 when Bakari Evelyn committed a turnover that led to a Rutgers’ three-point play. Next, Fredrick couldn’t get the ball inbounded against intense Scarlet Knight pressure and was whistled for a five-second call. Rutgers drew a foul and Ron Harper Jr. made two free throws to suddenly put the visitors ahead. The crowd got quiet.

Fran McCaffery liked what he saw from his team.

“We certainly after the two turnovers had an opportunity to hang our heads, and we did not do that,” he said. “We kept fighting. We executed on offense, to perfection, and then got the key stops.”

That’s the mark of a winning team. Iowa is 9-1 at home this season.

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Iowa guard Joe Toussaint took a big shot and made a big pass in win over Rutgers. He also came down with seven rebounds. Hear him describe it all: Hawk Central

Toussaint snaps out of funk with most impactful game as a Hawkeye

Toussaint had six points and eight turnovers in his previous three games. He was losing playing time to Evelyn. But he never lost his starting spot, and he rewarded McCaffery for that in a big way Wednesday.

Toussaint said Garza and Connor McCaffery both pulled him aside this week and offered encouragement. Garza said he knew Toussaint would be a key for the Hawkeyes against Rutgers if he was able to handle their pressure.

And Toussaint was.

He entered the game 4-for-22 from the 3-point arc this season. But late in the first half, with Iowa trailing 35-30, Toussaint found himself open right in front of the Rutgers bench. He felt like he was in rhythm, so he lined up a shot and let it fly. Toussaint heard a Rutgers coach say, “That’s off.”

It wasn’t. Toussaint’s shot was true. He turned to face the Scarlet Knight bench and didn’t say a word. He just offered a wave and headed back downcourt.

In the second half, with the score knotted at 51, Toussaint deflected the basketball at midcourt and quickly threw himself to the ground to retrieve it. From a prone position, he found Kriener racing downcourt for a layup. It was the hustle play of the game. The crowd loved it.

“I always try to be the first man to the floor, and I was,” Toussaint said.

But he was proudest of his rebounds.

“I was just trying to board up with all the bigs,” said the 6-foot Toussaint. “Coach said it’s going to be a tough game, a very rough game, and I just tried to get all the rebounds I could.”

Iowa outrebounded Rutgers 38-30.

McCaffery said Toussaint’s performance Wednesday should be the norm.

“He's got great speed. He can get anywhere he wants to get on the floor,” McCaffery said.

“He had a tendency in recent weeks to leave the floor and try to find somebody. Staying down on the ground. Defense was really good when we were man or zone, fighting over screens. Seven rebounds. I think he's going to stick his nose in there on the glass and come up with big rebounds, big loose balls, and then he can execute our offense.”

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Iowa guard Connor McCaffery couldn't get into a rhythm Wednesday, but he was confident he would knock down four late free throws. Listen: Hawk Central

Connor McCaffery takes over Jordan Bohannon role with four late free throws

Connor McCaffery hadn’t scored a point in his last 58 minutes and 13 seconds on the court. But when Garza gathered a defensive rebound with 16 seconds remaining and Iowa ahead only 81-79, he immediately passed the ball to the redshirt sophomore guard, who cradled it until getting fouled.

McCaffery was a 76% free throw shooter entering play. He calmly drained those two, and then two more after he came up with a defensive rebound with nine seconds to go. That secured Iowa’s win.

In years past, it’s been Jordan Bohannon stepping to the line in those moments. But Bohannon is out for the rest of this season after hip surgery.

McCaffery said it wasn’t necessarily design that he ended up with the basketball when Rutgers needed to put someone at the free-throw line. But he wasn’t shrinking from that duty either, despite being 0-for-4 from the field.

“I was just trying to be confident, step up to the line. I’ve made free throws like that in the past. I haven’t had to do it in awhile because we’ve had J-Bo,” McCaffery said. “But somebody’s got to step up in that situation, and this game it was me.”

Iowa next hosts Wisconsin on Monday.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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