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Iowa basketball's veterans ensure lead doesn't slip away against Rutgers

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Jordan Bohannon and Luka Garza could rest easy Wednesday evening knowing that they had helped their Iowa basketball team earn a needed win against Rutgers.

There was little time for the seniors to rest during the 79-66 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Coach Fran McCaffery tried to give them a second-half breather. The Scarlet Knights had other ideas, quickly cutting the Hawkeye lead to 54-48 and prompting McCaffery to turn right around and beckon his starting point guard and center to the scorer’s table.

Profile:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

The message was obvious: Iowa’s best players had to prevent another late slide that might turn a near-certain victory into a dispiriting defeat.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s finish this thing out,’” Garza said of the quick glance he exchanged with Bohannon as they ran to the rescue.

Garza grabbed a rebound and laid the ball in the basket. He followed with a dunk. Bohannon found junior Joe Wieskamp for a 3-pointer. The Hawkeyes never led by less than nine points again.

Wieskamp was the catalyst for No. 16 Iowa (14-6, 8-5 Big Ten Conference), with 26 points and 10 rebounds. Garza was unrelenting even when his shot was unreliable, putting up 22 points and 10 boards of his own. Bohannon engineered it all, picking his spots to score 12 points while adding a game-high seven assists.

This Luka Garza dunk sent a clear signal that Iowa's veteran players weren't going to watch another late lead evaporate. The senior center scored 14 of his 22 points after halftime Wednesday and the Hawkeyes stymied Rutgers 79-66 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Earlier:Joe Wieskamp ready to seize his moment as Iowa Hawkeyes' leading man

The Hawkeyes had let second-half leads get away in four of their previous five games. Iowa’s veteran trio had had enough. This time, the Hawkeyes built on their nine-point halftime lead, making 16 of 28 field goals in the second half (57.1%) while outrebounding Rutgers 19-12.

The Scarlet Knights got to the free-throw line just once in the second half and missed the shot. Rutgers (11-7, 7-7) had a four-game winning streak snapped and was swept by the Hawkeyes.

“The only thing you can do is control the team in front of you,” Wieskamp said after helping Iowa stop a two-game skid. “That’s what we tried to do.”

Hawkeyes point with pride to perimeter defense, rebounding

Wieskamp was also key to a determined Iowa defensive effort. He was intense and vocal on that end of the court, setting a tone that soon permeated the squad.

Rutgers missed 15 of its first 16 3-point attempts. The Scarlet Knights missed 38 shots, but got only 11 offensive rebounds. Those are two areas where Iowa has struggled at times this season. Not Wednesday.

“We’ve been amping up the pressure, trying to get into guys, and we know we can be a good defensive team,” Garza said.

Wieskamp’s 10 rebounds were all on the defensive end, offsetting a contingent of large Rutgers guards who thrive on crashing the offensive glass. It came down to effort, and Iowa showed more of it.

Wieskamp was encouraged by back-to-back Iowa defensive performances. Even though the Hawkeyes lost 67-65 at Indiana on Sunday, the Hoosiers went just 6-for-23 from the 3-point arc.

Iowa entered that game allowing Big Ten opponents to make 37.5% of their 3-point shots.

“People have been talking about that all year, how we’ve been struggling defensively. And watching film after a game, sometimes it can be tough to watch. Because we know that, looking back, we’re making a lot of silly mistakes, things we shouldn’t be doing,” Wieskamp said.

“Putting an emphasis on our defense has been huge for us these last couple games. We know that we can score the ball with anybody in the country, so it comes down to stops, and I think that we’ve made improvements throughout this year. We’ve got to keep it going.”

The Hawkeyes will need to.

After Wednesday’s game, they own the top-ranked offense according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics, but are 120th in defensive efficiency. Next for Iowa is a 1:30 p.m. Saturday game at Michigan State, a team that has been unusually feeble on offense this season, ranking just 87th. It’s an opportunity for Iowa to show that its defense can be a factor in winning and not just something to be overcome.

Iowa freshman Patrick McCaffery rises for a basket over Rutgers guard Ron Harper Jr on Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. McCaffery had five second-half points as the Hawkeye reserves made their presence felt in a 79-66 win.

Hawkeye bench, with Keegan Murray a part of it again, has a fine showing

Iowa’s bench players had their worst offensive showing of the season at Indiana, producing zero field goals and five points. McCaffery said he thought there were bright spots hidden within those numbers, but still it was natural for those young players to feel like they had let the team down.

On Wednesday, it was a group that produced what was needed to supplement the strong showing by the Hawkeye veterans. It helped that freshman forward Keegan Murray was able to be part of the reserves again, with sophomore guard CJ Fredrick back in the starting lineup for the first time in three games while dealing with a lower-leg injury.

More:Fran McCaffery draws on a deep pool of forwards off his bench for No. 4 Hawkeyes

Murray had 10 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes. Four of his rebounds were on the offensive end, where the Hawkeyes came up with 21 second-chance points.

Freshman Patrick McCaffery, who was upset with himself after a scoreless game against the Hoosiers, had five points, three assists and two steals. He swished a 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired early in the second half to provide a big lift.

Freshman Tony Perkins played only 6 minutes and didn’t score a point, but his hard work paid off in one sequence when he went into the lane to dig out an offensive rebound and eventually found Garza for a 3-pointer to put the Hawkeyes ahead by 13 points, just before Rutgers went on its run to cut the deficit to six.

In all, Iowa’s reserves were responsible for 19 points, 14 rebounds, four steals and three blocked shots. That will work.

Fran McCaffery said his message to his backup players, which include his middle son, Patrick, is: “You’re going to miss shots, but take good shots. Be aggressive.”

The young players will make mistakes, but they also have shown that they will usually offset that with exuberance and just enough moxie to earn their playing time.

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.