Billy Taylor leads Iowa men's basketball team to victory in Fran McCaffery's absence
IOWA CITY — Down 38-34 at halftime Sunday, a simple, clear message rang through the Iowa men's basketball team's locker room.
"The message was, we're not going to lose this game," star sophomore Keegan Murray said. "There's no way that we're going to lose this game. Everyone stepped up in the second half and I just think that message relayed to everyone."
Iowa (15-7, 5-6 Big Ten Conference) outscored Minnesota by a 37-21 margin in the second half to walk away with a 71-59 win. The Hawkeyes entered on a two-game losing skid. A third consecutive loss would've put Iowa at 4-7 in Big Ten play with difficult games down the stretch. In other words, a serious blow to the Hawkeyes' NCAA Tournament hopes.
In the absence of head coach Fran McCaffery (COVID-19 health and safety protocol), Iowa got a much-needed win over the Gophers. The victory capped three turbulent days for the program and potentially could send the team in the right direction.
"We talked before the game about playing with tremendous energy," said assistant coach Billy Taylor, who assumed head-coaching duties in McCaffery's absence. "I thought (in the) second half our energy was terrific. As a result, the crowd got into it and gave us that energy back so that we could continue to push forward and build that lead."
Here are some takeaways from Sunday's game:
It was a big win for coach Billy Taylor
The biggest storyline entering Sunday's game was Iowa's coaching situation. Responsibility for running the team fell on Taylor, who played for McCaffery at Notre Dame from 1991-95 and served as an assistant under him at UNC Greensboro from 1999-2002.
Taylor said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to be flexible. Having three former head coaches on the staff (Taylor, Kirk Speraw, Sherman Dillard) is helpful in situations like this.
Taylor, who served as head coach at Lehigh, Ball State and Belmont Abbey, said the preparation was as close to normal as possible. Dillard handled the scout work as usual, and a collaborative effort was used to put a game plan together.
"We tried to make it as normal as possible for our guys," Taylor said. "We've got a tremendous staff. Coach Dillard's been a head coach for many years. Coach Speraw, myself and (director of player development) Courtney Eldridge played professionally for 15 years. So we have a lot of experience. So there really weren't nerves of what to do, and that's what we asked the guys to do: Just do your job."
Still, Iowa got off to a slow start on Sunday. Taylor noted that a two-game skid, a postponed game on Thursday and then losing the head coach made it difficult for Iowa to get into the swing of things. As much as Taylor wanted to say that this was just a regular game, he admitted afterward that it wasn't.
"Obviously it means something," Taylor said. "Getting a chance to represent the Hawkeyes, my mentor and friend, and the student-athletes. You'd like to think it's another game but it means something and it's important. I'm really proud to go out there and see our guys respond the way that they did."
Taylor never notched a victory over a Big Ten school at his former head-coaching stops, making Sunday's success the first of his career in that category.
"He's a coach that's confident," Murray said. "He's one of the coaches that recruited me so I have a really good relationship with him. Our whole team latched on to what he's been saying in practice over the last couple of days and he's just a great coach overall."
Iowa's second-half rally started on defense
Down 47-42 with 16:48 remaining in the game, Iowa went on a furious 19-4 run to firmly place the game in its control. Iowa's man-to-man defense was a problem for the Gophers. Minnesota coach Ben Johnson said the difference between the first and second halves was night and day.
"It was like a tale of two halves," Johnson said. "(Iowa) cranked it up defensively and I thought their aggressiveness on defense led to really good offense. They were playing downhill and for whatever reason, we were just on our heels."
The first eight shots Minnesota attempted in the second half were 3-pointers. Then Iowa went on its run and the Gophers shot only six 3-pointers for the remainder of the game, making one. Iowa also forced Minnesota into seven turnovers and converted them into 17 points, limited Minnesota to just one second-chance point and zero fast-break points.
What sparked the change? A commitment to pressuring the ball man-to-man. Taylor credited guards Jordan Bohannon and Ahron Ulis for setting the tone at the top and the trickle-down effect followed.
"I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge to guard the basketball," Taylor said. "Our defense was tough at the start of the possession and tougher at the end to force shot-clock violations. We had the urgency that we needed and we were competing individually guarding the ball."
Keegan Murray's full game
There are several columns in Keegan Murray's box score that draw attention. There's the game-high 24 points, game-high 15 rebounds and his 50% shooting from the field. But the biggest number is 39:15, as in minutes played. Murray took a 45-second break toward the end of the first half but otherwise remained on the court for the entire game.
Murray collected two first-half fouls in each of Iowa's last two games, both times resulting in 10-plus minute stints on the bench until halftime. Both games resulted in an Iowa loss. On Sunday, Murray made the necessary adjustments to maximize his playing time.
"I kind of felt like it was my fault personally, not being on the floor as much as I should be," Murray said. "I really just locked in and played as aggressive on defense as I could without fouling. I just feel like if I'm on the court we're a better team and that's not saying anything selfishly, it's just what I think is good for our team overall."
Also impressive was Murray's defensive effort on Minnesota's top player, Jamison Battle. Battle is the sixth-leading scorer in the Big Ten at nearly 18 points per game and had scored in double figures in every game this season.
Against Murray on Sunday: two points, 1-for-12 shooting and scoreless in the second half.
"We talk about Keegan and his efforts on the offensive end," Taylor said. "But his effort to rebound the basketball and his effort defensively on (Minnesota forward) Jamison Battle was terrific. For Keegan to guard the ball and go back and rebound was really impressive."
A notable change in the starting lineup
For the first time this season, Iowa changed its starting lineup. Shooting guard Tony Perkins stepped for Joe Toussaint to join Jordan Bohannon in the starting five. Bohannon slid over from shooting guard to point guard.
Iowa's backcourt shot a combined 7-for-21 (compared to 0-for-18 in its last game against Penn State) and this is how the minutes were distributed: Bohannon 36, Ulis 21, Perkins 18 and Toussaint six.
Taylor noted after the game that the decision was made prior to McCaffery's positive COVID test on Thursday.
Bohannon and Ulis combined to play 35 minutes in the second half and spearheaded the second-half run.
Toussaint was active in his limited play with two steals and another hustle play that resulted in an extra possession on offense. Taylor emphasized that each player will continue to have a role in the team's success moving forward.
"This has been a team that's responded to different lineups," Taylor said. "Today, Ahron Ulis was a hero in terms of his defensive efforts. But we're going to need Joe Toussaint and we're going to need Tony Perkins."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.