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

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

With 2½ minutes left, after Iowa’s Filip Rebraca made two free throws to tie the score at 84-84 against No. 19 Indiana, Fox Sports’ Jason Benetti exclaimed: “This is bordering on insane tonight here in Iowa City.”

On the 40th anniversary of the opening of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa delivered one of the building’s most improbable results. After trailing by 21 points in the first half, the short-handed Hawkeyes delivered an inspiring 91-89 win, one that has to be among the most meaningful of Fran McCaffery’s coaching career.

That’s because of the result (wow, did Iowa need this one), the comeback (against the preseason Big Ten Conference favorite, no less) and the circumstances. Two days earlier, Iowa junior forward Patrick McCaffery – Fran’s son – announced he would step away from competition due to peaking anxiety issues. Patrick was on the bench Thursday to support his teammates, and his presence surely inspired them, too. Because these guys played with a lot of heart and toughness after falling into an inexplicable 28-7 hole in the game’s first seven minutes.

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

Here are four more quick thoughts after this hard-to-believe victory.

Ironman Kris Murray shines again

Murray told us on Wednesday during media availability that he really didn’t feel that tired while playing the full 40 minutes of Sunday’s 83-79 loss at Penn State. He scored 22 of his career-high 32 points after halftime in that game.

And on Thursday, Murray played the full 40 minutes yet again − despite picking up a third foul early in the second half. Fran McCaffery knew he had to ride his junior star, and he delivered with another huge second half. Murray scored 21 of his 30 points after halftime and grabbed 10 rebounds for good measure.

Just like he did at Penn State, Murray put this team on his back. But this time, he had more help. My favorite play by Murray was his and-one bucket that first hung on the rim to give Iowa a 76-72 lead with 7:33 to go. After the ball dropped in, Murray pumped a fiery fist as the crowd went wild. This young man returned to Iowa despite NBA opportunities for moments like these, and he rose to the occasion.

An embrace between two of the game's most important performers from Iowa, Payton Sandfort and Kris Murray.

But Murray's biggest play of the game wasn’t a bucket. It was on defense. Indiana had the ball after a botched Iowa possession with 23 seconds left, down 87-86. As Jalen Hood-Schifino drove to the basket around a screen, Murray came from the backside of the play, soared to block the shot AND collected the rebound with 10 seconds remaining. He got fouled and made both free throws. No tired legs on those two clutch shots.

Payton Sandfort steps up

The best individual story of the night for Iowa was Payton Sandfort’s emergence. The sophomore was 0-for-19 from the floor in Big Ten play heading into Thursday's game, but in his first moments off the bench, he fired up a 3-pointer and drained it after Indiana had stormed to a 23-4 lead. Looking back, there might not have been a bigger shot on the night given that Iowa was on fumes already, and it got Sandfort going on the right path with his game.

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

Sandfort, at 6-foot-8 on the wing, has the ability to assume a lot of Patrick McCaffery’s minutes. Thursday, he showed he was ready for the opportunity. Sandfort even got the start in the second half from Fran McCaffery, in place of struggling Ahron Ulis, and finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting … and made two clutch free throws with :03 left after Indiana had cut it to 89-88.

More shout-outs …

What a fantastic second half from Filip Rebraca. The fifth-year senior from Serbia scored 12 points and got eight rebounds in the second half alone, showing toughness and fire to go against Indiana star Trayce Jackson-Davis (30 points, nine rebounds). The only problem was that he fouled out with under a minute to go on a soft call by referee Courtney Green, who earlier was the subject of a Fran McCaffery tirade that warranted (and got) a technical foul. Rebraca finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.

(For the record, Iowa outscored Indiana, 78-59, after the McCaffery technical. Sometimes those things work.)

Connor McCaffery stepped into his brother’s starting role and was great. He buried a bomb 3-pointer to bring Iowa to within 57-56 midway through the second half, and suddenly it seemed like the Hawkeyes could do this thing. McCaffery finished with 16 points, and maybe most importantly was 6-for-6 from the foul line, including four makes in a 9-0 run after Iowa fell behind, 84-78, with 3:42 to go. As a team, Iowa was 22-for-25 (88%) from the stripe.

For more than 11 minutes, Fran McCaffery didn't make a second-half substitution. But he finally relented, putting Josh Dix, Dasonte Bowen and Ulis in at the 8:38 mark. Dix uncorked just one shot for the night, and the freshman drained it ... a 3-pointer that lifted Iowa to a 73-72 lead with 7:59 to go. Dix got key minutes down the stretch, too. This could be an important night for his development, and the head coach said afterward he needs to find more minutes for Dix.

The significance of the comeback? Season-saving

The only two comebacks in Iowa history that were bigger were 23 points (Gardner-Webb on Nov. 17, 2012) and 22 points (at Illinois on Jan. 14, 1987). The latter may never be topped, as the Hawkeyes were No. 1 in the nation and down 61-39 against the “Flyin’ Illini” before a stunning rally in Tom Davis' first year of 1987.

Beyond the wow factor, Iowa’s season was on the ropes entering this game. A humiliating home loss to Eastern Illinois, then road setbacks at Nebraska and Penn State had dropped the Hawkeyes from 27 to 69 in the NCAA NET rankings. A loss to Indiana – which seemed all but assured as Iowa still trailed, 35-15, midway through the first half – would have dropped Iowa to 0-4 in the Big Ten standings.

But now, the Hawkeyes not only recorded a signature win, it could serve as a momentum-building moment. Getting Murray going at Penn State after he missed four games with a foot injury was big; now getting Sandfort off the mat is another positive from this one. Iowa improved to 9-6 overall and 1-3 in Big Ten play.

The next task is difficult, a trip to Rutgers for an 11 a.m. (CT) Sunday game. The Scarlet Knights (11-4, 3-1) are responsible for No. 1 Purdue’s only loss and just suffocated Maryland, 64-50, on Thursday. Additionally, the Hawkeyes scored only 46 points in Piscataway a year ago. But after that, they come home for three straight games (Michigan, Maryland, Northwestern). There’s a chance over the next two weeks to creep back toward .500 in Big Ten play. And Thursday’s rousing win made that possible.

Stay tuned, folks. This team is all over the place. And as we saw Thursday night, that can be exciting.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.