First-place Iowa blasts Northwestern, then learns Nebraska game postponed due to COVID-19

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — Iowa looked like a first-place team in the Big Ten Conference on Sunday.

And that’s exactly what the Hawkeyes are after a resounding 96-73 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena, sweeping the regular-season series with Northwestern.

This was a complete and dominating performance.

Five Hawkeyes scored in double figures. They led by as many as 29 points and shot 58% for the game.

Keegan Murray's dunk delivered an exclamation point to the end of Iowa's first-half surge, and the Hawkeyes continued that momentum into the second half.

The win was Iowa’s fifth straight and moves the Hawkeyes (No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, No. 8 by the coaches) to 12-2 overall, 6-1 in Big Ten Conference play. With Michigan losing Saturday at Minnesota, the Hawkeyes and Wolverines (11-1, 6-1) are tied at the top. Wisconsin (11-3,  5-2), Ohio State (11-3, 5-3) and Illinois (9-5, 5-3) are close behind.

“We’ve been saying it all season long. We want to win a Big Ten championship," Iowa's Joe Wieskamp said. "We’ve put ourselves in a good position right now, but there’s a lot of season left and a lot of tough games ahead.”

Luka Garza was held below 20 points for just the second time in his last 23 Big Ten games — both times coming against Northwestern this season. But this was no fault of his own. The Hawkeyes held such a commanding lead that he was able to rest during the final 11:59. Garza finished with a double-double nonetheless — 17 points (all in the first half) and 10 rebounds in just 24 minutes.

Jan 17, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Joe Toussaint (1) shoots the ball against Northwestern Wildcats forward Pete Nance (22) during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Wieskamp added 16 points and was a team-best plus-27. CJ Fredrick scored 13 points, Jack Nunge 12 (his highest total since Dec. 17) and Jordan Bohannon 11. Keegan Murray contributed eight points and seven rebounds.

Northwestern (6-6, 3-5) lost for the fifth straight time — a streak started by Iowa’s 87-72 win on Dec. 29 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The Hawkeyes responded to their coach’s passionate timeout with an impressive 13-0 run.

Fran McCaffery is more reserved than fiery on the sidelines despite his reputation outside of Iowa, but he no doubt picks his spots to crank up the fireworks. One of those times occurred Sunday after Northwestern had erased a 10-point deficit on 8-of-10 shooting. During the under-8:00 media timeout, McCaffery went after his players (verbally), left the huddle and returned to bring the fire again. He challenged them to play better defense.

They did.

“He just said we’ve got to take it to them," Nunge said. "They started talking to us for a couple minutes there.”

Jan 17, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes forward Keegan Murray (15) makes an offensive rebound against Northwestern Wildcats guard Anthony Gaines (11)  during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Iowa turned a 29-28 deficit into a 41-29 lead by getting stops on nine consecutive Northwestern possessions. That included one turnover and 0-for-8 Northwestern shooting, including a blocked shot by Murray. Iowa got all eight rebounds off those misses, too. It was an effort thing. McCaffery was correct, Iowa’s defense was lackadaisical in the early going.

Nunge was a catalyst during that 13-0 run, scoring seven points and allowing Garza to get some rest.

“We had to get the rebounds if they were shooting long 3s," Nunge said. "We did a really good job of that, then pushing in transition to get easy buckets.”

The final two points of the first half? A direct result of defense, as Murray intercepted a pass near half-court and raced to the other end for a dunk and 49-37 halftime lead.

“A crucial play at the end of the half, that steal and dunk," Fredrick noted. 

As CJ Fredrick got the ball on the left wing during a second-half scramble, Northwestern’s Robbie Beran chased after him and yelled, “Shooter!”

Opponents know the Hawkeye sophomore, despite a recent slump, can beat them from deep. And Fredrick drained this 3, affirming Beran’s read on the situation, to boost Iowa’s lead to 56-39.

Fredrick had a very good game Sunday, scoring 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting with three assists and no turnovers.

Since the calendar turned to 2021, Fredrick’s offense had been unusually cold entering Sunday — 5-for-16 shooting, including 1-for-5 from 3-point range, while averaging just 3.7 points in three games.

Fredrick got going from the jump, as his first 3 attempt of the day was good just 1:42 into the game. His 3-pointer from the right corner with 12:12 to play had the bench hollering and jumping with joy. That gave Iowa a 69-42 lead.

“At the end of the day, I just want to win. I’m not worried about shots or missing shots," Fredrick said of his mini-slump. "But I wanted to have an aggressive mindset today; when I’m open, shoot it. Off the ball, try to get open a little bit and make plays for others. I got in a pretty good rhythm today.”

Fredrick left the game with 10:01 to play and was favoring his lower left leg. He did not return to action. The injury did not appear to be serious, though he was seen walking with ice around his left shin after the game.

“I’m good," Fredrick said of the injury. "No problems.”

Iowa-Nebraska is postponed, leaving the Hawkeyes with just one game this week.

Iowa plays host to Indiana at 8 p.m. Thursday, and for now that's the only game on the schedule this week. Shortly after Sunday's conclusion, it was announced that the Jan. 24 home game against Nebraska would be postponed due to the Huskers' COVID-19 pause that started Jan. 11. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg also acknowledged that he had tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday and that his program had been "hit hard over the last 10 days" by the virus. 

Stay tuned to see if there's a chance that Iowa's postponed game against Michigan State could be replayed perhaps Jan. 25 or 26. The Spartans are scheduled to host Illinois on Saturday, but if they're able to return to the court sooner after their own COVID-19 pause, the Big Ten shouldn't have any trouble finding a TV partner willing to air Spartans at top-five Hawkeyes early next week.

Big Ten assistant commissioner Kerry Kenny (who is in charge of scheduling) told me Friday that the league would look to make up the Iowa-Michigan State game sooner rather than later, knowing that more postponements could be coming. There are some built-in windows in the final two weeks of the regular-season schedule for makeup games. 

“We understand that disruption is a part of this year’s season," Kenny said, "and we want to play as many games as we can early on."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.