Iowa basketball's Keegan Murray leads bench resurgence to stave off Grand Canyon in first half

Michael McCleary
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Patrick McCaffery hung his dribble around the perimeter and saw an opening to attack.

The redshirt freshman had taken 128 shots all season prior to Saturday's 86-74 NCAA Tournament victory against Grand Canyon, nearly a third of which were 3-point attempts. But his first make Saturday came minutes earlier on a methodical push to the rim. He drove in and fired too strong, but on the other side of the rim, one of Iowa’s other most potent scorers awaited.

Keegan Murray timed his jump perfectly, up first to pull it down, back up to put it back. His eighth and ninth points of the game gave the Hawkeyes a six-point lead. When Murray returned to the bench, Jack Nunge leaned over his back, grabbed his shoulder and shook him.

With three Hawkeyes, including all-American Luka Garza, in foul trouble, Murray became the star of the first half for Iowa.

“He’s just not a mistake guy,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. "He doesn’t panic.”

Murray had to become a key man Saturday, with Connor McCaffery also collecting four fouls in 13 minutes.

“Connor kind of brought me to the side and just told me to play my game," Murray said. "He said, ‘Shots will fall at some point. Just do everything you can.’ I think by him puling me aside really helped me the rest of the game. Calmed me down. I hit a shot and I just ended up playing a pretty good game."

Finishing one point shy of his career high, Murray (13 points) led an all-around bench resurgence for the Hawkeye reserves, who scored 20 points in the first half at a time when Grand Canyon threatened. Garza fell silent after two-straight 3-pointers to start the first half and it was McCaffery’s aggressive looks to the rim that partially contributed to the space Grand Canyon afforded Joe Wieskamp (16 points) and Jordan Bohannon (13 points) on the perimeter. 


“I think we’ve had that mentality all year: Next man up,” Garza said. “We all know those guys can do that.”

The production was an unsung string of good fortune for the Hawkeyes, who led the entire game but succumbed to some early-game energy from the Antelopes and its rowdy contingent at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. Just three players on Iowa average double-digit points, and no player outside of Garza, Wieskamp and Bohannon scored more than seven points in either of Iowa’s Big Ten Tournament games. 

But against GCU, the Hawkeyes abandoned their usual principles to inject life into a team that saw its offense go stagnant. The momentum carried over to a second half featuring more bench scoring and several highlight blocks, and a near-upset that turned into a game nearly headed toward a blowout. 


Bench provides spark

Garza peered down at his fingers as he ran down the court and the chants rained down on him: “Airball! Airball!” After a quick start, the Iowa star had cooled down, most recently missing a free throw, taking a deep breath and firing the next about a foot short of touching anything. 

The Antelopes trailed just by three points, and they were starting to find room on the inside. So coach Fran McCaffery took out Connor McCaffery and inserted a true freshman who could give them energy. Murray entered the floor not as a scoring threat, but someone who could open up the floor for the Hawkeyes. Fran McCaffery said he expects the same thing from Murray every game: Get offensive rebounds. Clean up misses. Stretch out to the perimeter and defend. And he did just that: Garza scored a quick layup after he checked in.

“It really came down to getting quality minutes,” Fran McCaffery said.

But then something new happened: Murray started to score. A lot. He dunked the ball. He hit a 3-pointer in the corner. While he paced the scoring, the bench found its rhythm with buckets from Joe Toussaint and Patrick McCaffery. Tony Perkins drove in a straight line toward the rim the first time he touched the ball.

Iowa built a sizable lead, then grew it larger. When the bench left the game, the starters played more comfortably with a cushion. Wieskamp hit a stepback 3-pointer before the half. Bohannon hit one and then another after the break. By the midway mark of the second half, the Hawkeyes cruised.