Keegan Murray's historic day puts Iowa basketball on the cusp of Big Ten Tournament final
INDIANAPOLIS — Who would fill the massive scoring void left by National Player of the Year Luka Garza?
That was the question for Iowa this year. And, frankly, it seemed like an impossibility months ago that any one individual could.
But crazy as it sounds, Garza's gaudy single-season scoring record (747) survived for less than a full year.
Before Friday's Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal against Rutgers, Murray was only 24 points away from passing Garza. To do so, he had to overcome a team that defended him as well as any team has this season in Rutgers.
Murray's last game against The Scarlet Knights was a forgettable one. On Jan. 19 in Piscataway, he scored 13 points — his third-lowest point total of the season.
Iowa lost 48-46 in what would be the first of a four-game stretch in which Iowa lost three of four games and Murray averaged only 16 points per game on 35% shooting. The final game of that stretch was a double-overtime loss at Penn State on Jan. 31.
Since then, Murray's been virtually unstoppable, and Iowa has become one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
That dominance continued on Friday. The Hawkeyes enacted their revenge with an 84-74 victory and punched their ticket to the Big Ten Tournament semifinal game against Indiana on Saturday in the process. And it was the latest chapter in Murray's incredible season.
He led all scorers with 26 points on 53% shooting and chipped in eight rebounds. At the 8:18 mark in the second half with a pair of free throws, he passed Garza for the single-season record for points scored. It's fitting that on the same day that Murray passed Garza, he was named a semifinalist for the Naismith Trophy, an honor Garza received last season.
"Last year, I really just tried to learn from Luka as much as I could," Murray said. "Whenever you have a national player of the year on your team, you want to resemble him in a way. It's an honor for me, for sure."
Keegan wasn't the only Murray who bounced back from that January clunker. Twin brother Kris was held scoreless (0-for-5 shooting) in 11 minutes as Iowa didn't record a bench point that night. His impact was mostly felt in the first half Friday afternoon, with seven points and five rebounds. Iowa's bench outscored Rutgers bench 14-0 in the first half and 18-0 for the game.
On Jan. 19, the twins combined for just 13 points (all Keegan) in a loss. In Friday's win, they combined for 35 points.
But the day belonged to Keegan Murray, who yet again put forth another strong performance for his all-American and Player of the Year resume.
His first half was dominant. He scored a game-high 18 points and led a 19-point turnaround in which Iowa went from down 10 points early to leading by nine points at halftime.
He also provided a highlight reel sequence that encompasses his impact on the game: he grabbed a defensive rebound, raced down the court and dunked over two Rutgers defenders. That play was in the midst of a 17-3 Iowa run that shifted the game's momentum.
His second half was quiet by his standards: eight points (3-of-7 shooting) and four rebounds but he still found ways to affect the game, one of Fran McCaffery's favorite qualities about him.
Rutgers attempted a comeback with a little over 5 minutes remaining and cut the deficit to eight points. Murray intercepted a pass and took it all the way for a fast break dunk. On the following possession he pump-faked mid air before finding an open Tony Perkins for a three-point to stretch their lead to 15 points. Rutgers never got the deficit back to 10 until a layup with 12 seconds remaining.
Prior to this season, there were questions about if Keegan could step into that dominant position previously held by Garza. Now, with one more win on Saturday the Hawkeyes can go to a place they haven't with Garza or in Fran McCaffery's tenure: the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
Friday's win was Iowa's 21st double-digit win this season. Their last single-digit win was on Jan. 13 (by nine) ... against Indiana. The Hoosiers' path to the semifinal includes upsets of Michigan and top-seeded Illinois on Friday.
"We had these goals and aspirations early in the season," Murray said. "We knew that we were going to be a good team and we knew that we had to be playing our best basketball at this point in the season. I feel like we're doing that and just take it one game at a time.
"Indiana's a really good team, they're really well-coached and they're playing really well right now. Just get back, look them over and see what we need to work on to try to beat them (on Saturday)."
Saturday will be a de-facto home game for Indiana, playing in downtown Indianapolis. But Iowa's as confident as any team in the country. And for good reason as they're led by yet another first-team all-American and national player-of-the-year candidate.
"He just stays the course. He's very even tempered," McCaffery said. "And then as the game goes on, he affects it in so many different ways. Just phenomenally impressive in every aspect. Breaking down his game, but I think breaking down who he is, his demeanor on the floor, his competitive instincts and his desire to win."
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.