Payton Sandfort's big day powers Iowa basketball past Rutgers 76-65 on the road

PISCATAWAY, N.J. − A perceived clash in styles between Iowa and Rutgers men's basketball gave way to an up-tempo contest in which both teams exchanged body blows throughout Sunday's game.

The Hawkeyes got the game they've been waiting for from sophomore Payton Sandfort (22 points, including 14 in the second half) and secured a wire-to-wire 76-65 road win over the Scarlet Knights.

Sandfort's performance was the biggest takeaway as it appears his early-season struggles are behind him after back-to-back solid performances. And as a team, Iowa's team morale is in a much different place than it was just a few days ago. Sunday's win pushed the Hawkeyes to 10-6 overall and 2-3 in Big Ten play after previously losing four of five games.

"It's night and day," said center Filip Rebraca, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds. "When you start the Big Ten 0-3 and then you get two back-to-back wins against two very good teams, you can't lie and say morale isn't high. But this is just the beginning, we have three home games now (Michigan, Maryland, Northwestern) and we need to lock in because I feel like those are three winnable games that we need to get. You can never get too high or too low as coach Fran always says."

Fran McCaffery gave his team credit for the composure displayed on Sunday. Despite never trailing, Iowa's win wasn't without adversity as Rutgers continually made runs, cutting the lead to six points on several occasions. McCaffery opted for veteran experience in the second half as only six players saw game action, upperclassmen Rebraca, Kris Murray and Ahron Ulis playing all 20 minutes. It wasn't always pretty but the Hawkeyes made enough plays to close the door on a comeback attempt.

"(Rutgers) ... they're going to keep coming," McCaffery said. "The composure that's necessary in those situations is what gets you home. And we had a couple of turnovers, but we made our free throws and we executed."

Iowa avoided a slow start, and it made a huge difference

The Hawkeyes had been their own worst enemy as of late, digging large, early holes and having to climb out of them, but they came out as the aggressor on Sunday. Iowa raced out to an 8-0 lead within the first four minutes of play, meanwhile holding Rutgers to 0-of-3 shooting and three turnovers on the defensive end.

Ulis' three-pointer put all five of Iowa's starters in the points column within the first six minutes of game play, and Iowa assisted on six of its first seven baskets.

"You have to get off to a good start," McCaffery said. "This is not an easy team to play against. They're really connected defensively and they're physical. You've got to move the ball, take care of the ball against pressure. You have to handle the pressure and then eventually you have to make shots and we made shots."

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The first of several comeback attempts by Rutgers came around the midway point of the first half. The Hawkeyes were up comfortably 30-17 with 9:11 remaining in the half but a 10-2 Rutgers run cut the lead to just five points with about five minutes remaining. Murray and Connor McCaffery went to the bench with three minutes remaining with two fouls each and Fran McCaffery opted for an unusual lineup: Ulis, Sandfort, Tony Perkins, walk-on Carter Kingsbury and Rebraca.

That group closed the half on a 5-0 run over three minutes and Iowa carried a 42-30 lead into halftime. The Hawkeyes faced double-digit halftime deficits in their previous three games but on Sunday scored more first-half points against Rutgers than any other team this season.

It was another dominant night from the Hawkeye front court

Following up on a big game Thursday against Indiana, the Iowa front court won the matchup on Sunday against a bigger Rutgers lineup. Rebraca had his double-double, Murray added 17 points and seven rebounds and Connor McCaffery had eight assists and played strong defense.

Rebraca had arguably the toughest matchup of the day in Rutgers big man Clifford Omoruyi, one of the best shot blockers in the Big Ten, and Rebraca played admirably. With Connor McCaffery and Murray in foul trouble, Rebraca played all 20 minutes in the first half and finished with a team-high 12 points and seven rebounds.

"I respect Cliff as one of the better bigs in our league" Rebraca said. "But I trust my game and I'm confident I can attack anyone. I have to make (opposing big men) guard me too, and I feel like that's what I did."

Iowa held the rebounding edge throughout Sunday's game but allowed eight offensive rebounds in the early to middle part of the second half that helped Rutgers keep its comeback alive. However, the Hawkeye front court allowed just one offensive rebound in the final seven minutes and prevented additional second-chance opportunities.

"They're a big team that crashes the boards," Rebraca said. "There was a stretch where they'd get a few offensive rebounds in one possession, we understood that couldn't happen. It was just up to each man individually to box out and go get it, I feel like we made that a concerned effort."

Iowa holds off Rutgers' comeback thanks to Sandfort's shooting

Iowa forward Payton Sandfort (20) shoots the ball against during the first half as Rutgers guard Derek Simpson (0) defends, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, at Jersey Mike's Arena in Piscataway, N.J.

Iowa's hot first-half shooting went wayward during a near seven-minute scoring drought in the second half. On the other end, Rutgers capitalized with a 12-0 run to cut the lead to five points with about nine minutes remaining. The Scarlet Knights remained in that six-to-nine point striking distance for the duration of the game.

"I thought we were starting to milk clock a little bit," Fran McCaffery said. "You're up 12 (points) with 10 minutes to go, you got to go. You can't do that, especially here, so we started attacking a little bit more and Sandfort was phenomenal."

Iowa forward Filip Rebraca (0) shoots the ball as Rutgers center Clifford Omoruyi (11) and forward Mawot Mag (3) defend during the first half Sunday at Jersey Mike's Arena in Piscataway, N.J.

The former Waukee High School star had been in a noticeable slump for the majority of this season but was Iowa's most clutch player in the second half. His three-pointer at the 8:34 mark ended the scoring drought to extend the lead back to eight. Then he scored the next eight points for Iowa to extend the lead back to double digits, 66-55 with 5:04 remaining. The Scarlet Knights were on the cusp of completing the comeback, but Iowa answered back with a big shot of its own.

Iowa's defense held firm in the closing minutes as Rutgers never got closer than five points. And clutch free throws by Sandfort and Ulis put the game on ice.

"It came from my determination to win," Sandfort said. "We didn't have a lot going during that stretch. Throughout my career I've always wanted to be the guy to step up and hit those big shots, I never wavered in my faith in myself and hit those big shots."

An update on Connor McCaffery and a nice gesture by Rutgers

A late storyline that arose as Iowa secured the win was a head injury to Connor McCaffery. The senior took an elbow to the side of the head on a screen and went down in pain. Afterward, Fran McCaffery said Connor was doing "much better" but didn't specify if he was in concussion protocol. Iowa's next game isn't until Thursday, giving McCaffery several days to recover.

And before his postgame press conference, Fran McCaffery issued a statement of gratitude to Rutgers athletics. McCaffery's son and starting forward Patrick recently left the team indefinitely to focus on his anxiety and mental health. Fran revealed that the Rutgers team wrote a card for Patrick wishing him well and athletic director Pat Hobbs stopped by team practice on Saturday to send his well-wishes as well.

"We're supposed to hate each other I guess but that's not the way it is," McCaffery said. "We're competitors, we fight, but we're all in this thing together. We're all in this journey together."

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