How a hustle play sparked an Iowa men's basketball comeback, plus more Indiana takeaways
IOWA CITY — Things weren't looking great for Iowa men's basketball at halftime Thursday.
It had just allowed Indiana to shoot 58% in the first half. It had two key starters in foul trouble. It was getting dominated by the Hoosiers' big men. And it was down seven points, with Indiana set to begin the second half with the ball and a chance to quickly go up by double digits.
But just 14 seconds in, guard Joe Toussaint and forward Patrick McCaffery ignited the team with an effort play.
Toussaint pressured Indiana guard Xavier Johnson, forcing him to lose the ball. A scramble ensued, where both Toussaint and McCaffery dove on the floor to secure the loose ball. Toussaint got the steal and Iowa scored on the next possession, cutting down a potential double-digit deficit to just five points.
From there, a different Iowa team appeared.
"We established on that play that we were going to play a lot tougher than they were," Filip Rebraca said. "I think we carried that on through the game and we were a tougher team in the second half."
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Iowa put forth a 16-point swing in that second half and ended with a 83-74 win to improve its Big Ten Conference record to 2-3. By game's end, the Hawkeyes scored more points in the paint (42-40) and second-chance points (16-9) than Indiana, and they won the turnover battle by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
Indiana entered the game with a 3-2 Big Ten record. If Iowa wanted to keep pace in the conference race, it needed to win a game like this at home. Starting conference play in a 1-4 hole could have been catastrophic.
"You need that every game in this league," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "Every team has veteran guys, (players) came back or they went into the portal so every team's experienced. If you don't have that toughness and you can't execute coming down the stretch, then you're going to have a hard time winning close games."
Here are three more takeaways from Iowa's win over Indiana on Thursday night:
Rebounding, defense were much improved
Toussaint's steal was the first of 14 Iowa forced turnovers in the second half. In the first half, it only had one steal. Overall, the Hawkeyes forced 23 Indiana turnovers and converted it to 34 points. They also blocked seven shots.
What exactly changed following halftime?
"We were active in the press and active in the zone," Fran McCaffery said. "Our double teams (on Trayce Jackson-Davis) were clearly much better in the second half. And our rebounding; this is a great second-shot team so we have to limit them to one shot."
Their intensity on defense matched their sense of urgency in rebounding. One week ago, Wisconsin nearly doubled Iowa in rebounding margin. On Thursday, Iowa outrebounded the fourth-best rebounding team in the conference (35-31), including a 22-15 second-half margin. Perhaps the most impressive stretch came early in the second half, when Iowa secured four offensive rebounds in its first two possessions, setting up eight shot attempts.
"(Jackon-Davis) and (Race Thompson) are two of the top bigs in the Big Ten," said Kris Murray, who scored a career-high 29 points to lead Iowa. "Winning the rebounding battle was a huge emphasis and we have to crash the glass because the opportunities would be there. Offensive rebounds are huge because you can get a kick-out 3 or an easy score around the rim so we have to maximize those."
Free throws made a huge difference
Iowa's the top-ranked free throw shooting team in the Big Ten this year and its ability at the line paid dividends on Thursday.
The Hawkeyes went on a four-minute scoring drought from the six-minute mark to the two-minute mark in the first half. Indiana's lead grew to 11 points. Iowa only scored one field goal in the final six minutes, but in the final two minutes, Iowa converted on 7 of 8 free throw attempts to cut the lead down to seven before halftime.
In the second half, the Hawkeyes were nearly perfect, converting 13 of 14 free throws. Overall they shot 21-for-25 (84%), which is 7% higher than their season average. On the other end, Indiana shot only 13-for-21, or 62%.
"You got to get to the free throw line," Fran McCaffery said. "You have to drive the ball. You want to get your team into the bonus so if they are fouled in that situation you at least have a one-and-one. That was a critical part where we were able to get some points so the lead didn't go from seven to 12. Kept it at 12, which is manageable."
Iowa's bench had another stellar night
Two early season themes with this Iowa team were depth and how competitive practices had been because players were vying for major roles. That depth and competitiveness from the bench is what propelled Iowa to a win.
Kris Murray's career night takes center stage with 29 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and three blocks, but a few other players stepped up as well. Foul trouble plagued Iowa throughout the game. As a result, Murray played nearly 30 minutes, Connor McCaffery and Ahron Ulis played about 20 minutes each, and Tony Perkins provided a short six-point burst to help Iowa take the lead down the stretch.
The starters haven't changed in 16 games but the bench unit is highly motivated to continue production when subbed in.
"We always have that mindset that we're not going to have a drop-off," Kris Murray said. "It's someone new every game. We just keep it going especially on defense."
McCaffery is starting to see everyone's roles take shape: Connor McCaffery is the veteran presence, Ahron Ulis has consistency as a distributor and downhill attacker, and Perkins has two-way ability. Kris Murray's breakout game could signify he's the sixth-man leader of the bench unit.
Twelve Iowa players played against Indiana in varying degrees of minutes. The question loomed heading into Big Ten play if the rotation would shrink or not. McCaffery said after the game that it will not.
"That's the kind of team we have," he explained. "Connor was great in the second half. (Ahron) was spectacular, made a couple of mistakes but was great in that one stretch. Tony turned the whole game around. Those guys come in an impact the game. That's the type of team we have and I'm going to play them all."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.