Red-hot Iowa basketball pulls away from Nebraska, secures 20-win season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — For the first time in more than seven years, Fran McCaffery’s Iowa basketball team has emerged from Pinnacle Bank Arena victorious.

The Hawkeyes shook off some dubious history here, pulling away in the second half for an 88-78 win Friday night.

In the process, the Hawkeyes delivered their fourth straight 20-win season as they inched closer to an NCAA Tournament bid. They’re now 20-8 overall entering the final week of the regular season.

This one was far from a layup, though, against the Big Ten Conference's last-place team.

Tony Perkins pumped in 15 of his career-high 20 points in the second half of Iowa's 88-78 win at Nebraska.

On senior night, Nebraska delivered a strong first-half performance and hounded Big Ten scoring leader Keegan Murray, holding him to four points on 1-for-6 shooting in front of 25 NBA scouts. The Cornhuskers raced to a 28-21 lead, and Iowa was generous with seven first-half turnovers.

Iowa’s leading scorer in the first half? Connor McCaffery, who averages 1.8 points per game. The fifth-year senior tallied nine first-half points as he swished three 3-pointers to help the Hawkeyes climb back, and Jordan Bohannon’s nifty pass to Filip Rebraca at the horn gave Iowa a 36-35 halftime edge.

“This was a big game for us. I think it showed a little bit in the beginning of the first half, we came out and played a little tentative,” Connor McCaffery said. “But we’re just going to keep plugging.”

While Connor McCaffery provided the first-half juice for Iowa, Tony Perkins provided the second-half sauce.

Perkins ran off seven straight points for the Hawkeyes to push the lead to 56-51, then a transition feed from Bohannon to Murray for a dunk forced a Fred Hoiberg timeout. Perkins hadn’t scored in double figures since Dec. 6 but finished with a career-high 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting.

The Murray brothers eventually heated up. Kris Murray, after going scoreless in the first half, offered a seven-point flurry in an 11-0 run that pushed Iowa's lead to 69-56. 

Perkins had 15 of his 20 points in the second half. 

“It’s the kind of team we have. Any night, you don’t know who’s going to do what," Fran McCaffery said. "You think about Kris Murray, in the first half, he was pretty much non-existent and was a dominant player in the second half, both ends. That says a lot about our team.”

Keegan Murray finished with his seventh double-double of the season, 15 points and 11 rebounds (even though he struggled at the free-throw line, 3-for-7). That ended a string of seven straight games with 20-plus points for the potential all-American.

“He’s not going to have 30 every game — 15 and 11, some people would love to average that," his twin brother, Kris, said. "They did a good job on him, making him make tough shots, making him make decisions. But we need either people to step up, like Tony did today. He was huge."

Kris Murray finished with 12 points, all in the second half. Bohannon added 12 points of his own, including six free throws in the final minute. Connor McCaffery had 11 points and Patrick McCaffery 10.

Iowa’s previous win at “The Bank” occurred on Feb. 22, 2015, a 74-46 thrashing in Lincoln from an Aaron White-led team that had everything humming down the stretch. That Iowa team won its final six Big Ten games to go from 6-6 to 12-6 last year.

The 2022 Hawkeyes are mimicking a late-season push, having gone from 4-6 after a double-overtime loss Jan. 31 at Penn State to 10-7 after winning six of seven games. Monday’s home finale against Northwestern (13-14, 6-12 after Friday’s road loss at Penn State) gives Iowa a chance to go 7-1 in February before season-ending road games at Michigan and Illinois.

Before Friday, Iowa had some rough Pinnacle Bank history. It lost in double overtime in 2017; got blown out in 2018; blew a nine-point lead in the last 50 seconds of regulation to lose in 2019; and suffered a 76-70 defeat here on Jan. 7, 2020.

That might have been the peak of the three-year Hoiberg era. The Cornhuskers are 4-48 in Big Ten play since then and dropped to 7-21 overall, 1-16 in league play with three road games to go.

The Hawkeyes, though, were glad to depart with the W. It helped to have first-timers like Perkins and the Murrays leading the way.

"I said, 'This is my first year playing here, and I'm not going to let it be a loss,'" Perkins said after being asked about the Hawkeyes' history. "For the people that hadn't won here, I said, 'We're going to win this for y'all.' That's what we did."