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Hawkeyes thrive again behind Luka Garza as basketball victory caps somber day

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza was unstoppable in a basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, just like old times.

Iowa’s all-American center needed only 24 minutes to score 26 points, with 10 rebounds and three blocked shots Wednesday as the No. 6 Hawkeyes easily dispatched North Carolina Central 97-67 in the season-opener.

More:Big Ten basketball star Luka Garza staying at Iowa, forgoes NBA draft

But there was nothing else “normal” about the day for the Iowa basketball team. It began in the morning, when the Hawkeyes gathered to participate virtually in funeral services being held in Indiana for Dr. Mark Nunge, the 53-year-old father of teammate Jack Nunge. Mark Nunge died unexpectedly Saturday morning, and Jack went home to grieve with his loved ones. There is no timetable for when he will return to Iowa to resume playing basketball.

“His family is part of our family,” Garza said of Jack, who was his roommate in 2017 when they arrived to begin their Hawkeye careers.

Garza said the Hawkeyes were able to refocus on their sport after that, but it was still an odd scene to trot onto their home court and not hear the roar of a crowd. Only family members are allowed to attend Hawkeye basketball games, at least in the beginning part of the season, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iowa center Luka Garza drives for two of his 26 points as North Carolina Central's Mike Melvin (1) and Justin Wright try to stop him Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes won their season-opener 97-67.

“We’ve got to create our own energy,” Garza said. “That’s the mentality our team has to have going forward. Once you get into the game, you’re not worried about anything else but winning a basketball game. You don’t care about the fans or whatever.”

Winning was the easy part for Iowa on Wednesday. The Hawkeyes went on a 14-0 run late in the first half to pull away from the undersized Eagles. Garza eclipsed 20 points for the 17th consecutive game.

He had seven of Iowa’s 20 offensive rebounds. The Hawkeyes scored 27 second-chance points. They also got 22 points off of 15 North Carolina Central turnovers.

All 12 scholarship players who got into the game scored for Iowa, including five true freshmen who each got their first college points.

Everything went according to script during the 113 minutes of playing time. Even if nothing felt normal before and after.

Patrick McCaffery is 'spark plug' that helps Hawkeyes find new pace

Patrick McCaffery scored 16 points in his first game in a year for the Hawkeyes. The 6-foot-9 small forward entered the game midway through the first half and immediately showed what he can provide for his team.

“Energy,” McCaffery said, summing up his impact with a single word.

“Energy was a big thing. I feel like our energy was maybe a little lacking, so I just wanted to come out there and provide energy and kind of be a little spark plug off the bench. I feel like that’s my role on this team.”

Iowa forward Patrick McCaffery (22) grabs a rebound during a NCAA non-conference men's basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

McCaffery, the middle son of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, played in only two games last season before sitting out when complications arose from the cancer he survived as a teenager. He used the time off to put on 20 needed pounds, getting his weight up to a little more than 200.

Earlier:Iowa recruit Patrick McCaffery hones his elite offensive skills as he prepares to join his dad

Patrick McCaffery immediately went to the top of a 1-2-2 full-court press that his father called for upon his entry to the game. That led to a steal, but — more importantly — it caused the Eagles to start passing the ball side to side tentatively, not sure how to attack the length McCaffery brings.

"Try to make them indecisive. Try to force them into turnovers,” McCaffery said of the goal of the press.

But McCaffery’s true value is on the offensive end, and he showed that he’s not afraid to shoot, or to crash the glass. He came up with three offensive rebounds and drew five fouls. He made one 3-pointer, a couple of putbacks and 5 of 8 free throws, all in 21 minutes.

Patrick McCaffery will be the eighth man in his father’s veteran rotation, and there will be other games like Wednesday’s, when Iowa’s pace increases as soon as he steps onto the court.

Keegan Murray leads a pack of true freshmen that all got their first points

Every college athlete gets an extra year of eligibility if they want it because of how COVID-19 has disrupted schedules. So why wouldn’t Fran McCaffery throw all five of his freshmen into the action late in a home blowout?

The quintet — Keegan and Kris Murray, Tony Perkins, Ahron Ulis and Josh Ogundele — have had a strange introduction to college basketball, trying to bond and earn playing time while being isolated because of the coronavirus.

“It’s kind of tough to jell early on just because there’s a lot of us,” Keegan Murray explained. “Being able to be on the court with all of them at the same time is something we’ve been looking forward to.”

Iowa forward Keegan Murray (15) makes a basket as North Carolina Central's Justin Wright, left, and Nicolas Fennell defend during a NCAA non-conference men's basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Keegan Murray, a 6-8 power forward, was the only freshman to play in the first half. This was partially because he needed to replace the minutes that would ordinarily go to Nunge. But it also was a sign that Fran McCaffery already values the versatility and rebounding tenacity that Murray has shown.

Murray displayed that by quickly grabbing an offensive rebound and scoring on a putback. He said he was a little nervous about his college debut, but it certainly didn’t show. He attempted a 3-point shot seconds later that was off-target, but kept at it.

Murray nailed consecutive 3-pointers in a 23-second span of the second half. He finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, a promising sign for an Iowa team that could use a little more depth in the front court.

“I knew exactly what he would provide. He’s been doing it every day,” Fran McCaffery said of Murray.

Look for Murray to be the ninth option in McCaffery’s rotation, when he feels the need to go that deep.

Jordan Bohannon plays a pain-free game, and that's cause for celebration

The stat sheet does not reveal the value that Jordan Bohannon brought to the Hawkeyes. The senior point guard, back in action after a second hip surgery, is down to 175 pounds on his 6-1 frame and moved with an effortless fluidity not seen before. He played 17 first-half minutes without tiring. And that’s a great sign for Iowa, which was missing the edge that Bohannon brings for the final 20 games of last season.

Bohannon made just 2 of 7 3-point attempts. But you know that those shots are going to fall for him. He’s the Hawkeyes’ all-time leader in successful 3s with 286 of them.

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon (3) makes a 3-point basket as North Carolina Central's Mike Melvin (1) defends during a NCAA non-conference men's basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Bohannon grabbed five defensive rebounds and had two assists, including a terrific half-court pass to Joe Wieskamp for a transition dunk.

But the most important thing he did was play a team-high 26 minutes, confidently cutting on those surgically repaired hips.

Fran McCaffery said he was happy to see Bohannon play pain-free.

“That kid is just a gamer, a worker. One bad hip or two bad hips, he was phenomenally productive,” McCaffery said. “He’s a little bit leaner now. He’s moving really well. I think that’s good for him.”

It’s good for the Hawkeyes. One final year of a healthy Bohannon could be what pushes this team over the top.

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.