Iowa men's basketball rallies from 21 points down, secures critical home win over Indiana

Leading up to Iowa men's basketball's biggest game of the year on Thursday against No. 19 Indiana (10-4, 1-2 Big Ten), the game itself took a backseat to a bigger topic concerning one of its star players.

Junior Patrick McCaffery's decision to step away to monitor his growing anxiety was the main talking point during the team's media availability on Wednesday. Without one of the team's most important players and the Hawkeyes on a three-game skid, how would they respond in a nationally-televised home game?

A disastrous start for Iowa (9-6, 1-3 Big Ten), followed by a furious comeback paved the way for a seesaw second half between two desperate teams. The Hawkeyes' veteran frontcourt of Connor McCaffery (starting in place of his brother), Kris Murray and Filip Rebraca dominated throughout and in the end made enough plays to help Iowa outlast Indiana, 91-89.

More:Leistikow's 5 thoughts off Iowa's instant-classic win against Indiana

Murray finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds, Rebraca added 19 points and 10 rebounds and Connor McCaffery scored 16 points. And for now, Iowa's season is back on track.

"We got close (on Jan. 1) against Penn State," Murray said. "I think just being able to complete this comeback, you don't want to spot them that many points, but it just gives us a lot of confidence going into the next game and just shows the grit of this team."

How did Iowa overcome a 21-point first half deficit against Indiana?

A tired Filip Rebraca jokingly answered "I don't know" to that very question after the game, but provided some insight into the mentality of the team.

Slow first half starts have plagued Iowa during its recent skid and Thursday night was no different. The Hoosiers raced out to a 16-4 lead in the first five minutes. Despite 11 first half turnovers, Indiana was in a consistent rhythm throughout, shooting a staggering 65% from the field. Notable leads included 23-4, 28-7 and 35-15.

Eventually, the Hawkeyes said enough was enough.

"We lost three games in a row in (the) conference and we just said that this couldn't fly," Rebraca said. "We looked each other in the eyes and said this can't fly anymore. I think we all individually understood that, owned up to our past mistakes and just stepped up."

Kris Murray described Iowa's strategy as "four-by-four-by-four" or winning each four-minute segment. Slowly but surely, the Hawkeyes chipped away at the lead and only trailed by 10 points at halftime. Coach Fran McCaffery opted to start Payton Sandfort in the second half and the lineup of him, Murray, Connor McCaffery, Rebraca and Tony Perkins stayed on the court for the first 12 minutes of the half and spearheaded the improbable comeback.

More:Leistikow: Why Patrick McCaffery made his 'brave' decision and when he'll be back

"I thought they played both ends," Fran McCaffery said. "I thought they executed offensively. They were doing a lot of switching. They were physical. They were physical on half-court defense as a team and those guys have just fought through. It takes a lot of energy to continuously run motion and then to press and then to be active in the zone and then to rebound both ends. Twelve minutes, that's a long time, but I just felt like that group was really connected."

Payton Sandfort's performance might be the most encouraging sign for Iowa basketball

When Iowa found itself in a 23-4 deficit with 14:26 remaining in the first half, a spark off the bench came in the form of sophomore Payton Sandfort. The sharpshooter, in an uncharacteristic slump, entered the game and fired off two quick shots, scored 5 points and helped get Iowa back on track.

Sandfort knew he'd see a bigger role on Thursday with Patrick McCaffery out and he took full advantage. He logged 25 minutes after just 17 minutes combined in the previous two games. His 11-point, four rebound and two assist effort wasn't the most robust of the night, but it might've been the most important as Iowa pushed ahead.

"He practiced well prior to this game and played with a lot of confidence," Fran McCaffery said. "We needed a bigger guy. We needed another scorer. We needed a versatile guy that's smart. His tip-in (to extend Iowa's lead to 68-64 with 9:36 remaining in the game) was huge. His buckets early when we were struggling were a big part of this victory. He's not a mistake guy. So if he's hitting shots, he's really special. But he'll beat you in a lot of different ways."

Iowa's true freshmen showed flashes in big moments

Iowa guard Josh Dix (4) makes a 3-point basket as Indiana guard Tamar Bates (53) defends during the Hawkeyes' comeback win Thursday night.

A pair of freshmen guards, Dasonte Bowen and Josh Dix, were at the center of arguably the most important sequence on Thursday night.

Down 72-70 with eight minutes to play, Dix connected on a 3-pointer (his only shot attempt of the night) to put Iowa ahead by a single point. On the next possession, Dix secured the defensive rebound, found Bowen on an outlet pass who then dropped in a perfect pass to Murray in the paint for a layup plus the foul that extended Iowa's lead to 76-72.

Dix received additional praise after the game for his defensive effort in the second half, most notably in double teams in the post to aid Rebraca. Neither player's raw stats will blow fans away, but the most important number is 10, the number of minutes that each played Thursday. Iowa was short-handed in the biggest game of the season, the fact that each was able to give quality minutes was critical to the team's win.

"We had to play a lot of our young guys tonight," Fran McCaffery said. "When they're in there in crunch time, your young guys, they have to execute.. they didn't panic."

What does tonight's win mean for the Hawkeyes?

The Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd that was celebrating the venue's 40th birthday witnessed an instant classic on Thursday. Fran McCaffery, by nature, usually doesn't put too much stock in one win or one loss, but acknowledged that the team needed this win.

"We got the Wisconsin game to overtime," Fran McCaffery said. "We got the last possession and didn't score at Penn State. So being able to finish one off and have sort of a jubilant locker room, I think is really important."

Iowa forward Kris Murray (24) drives to the basket as Indiana forward Malik Reneau (5) defends him in Iowa's big comeback win Thursday night.

An 0-4 start in the Big Ten would've been a nearly insurmountable hole, but Iowa won the game and had a few good stories develop along the way. The Hawkeyes' first Big Ten win couldn't have come at a better time. Not only did it snap a losing streak, but it's Iowa's second Quad 1 win of the season; which will bolster an NCAA tournament resume that's on the rocks right now.

Next up: another opportunity for an impressive win on the road at Rutgers on Sunday.