Leistikow: When Tony Perkins is humming, Hawkeyes are at their best

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − While the Iowa men’s basketball team entered Sunday’s matchup against Maryland surging, not everyone was clicking during its impressive three-game win streak.

The whispers were growing: “What’s up with Tony Perkins?”

The junior guard’s struggles were mounting. Three games of a combined 6-for-28 shooting hadn’t cost Iowa any wins; but to Perkins, the skid felt like a long drought, even though it was just three games over eight days. Adding to Perkins’ frustration was being on the bench late in Iowa’s wins at Rutgers and home against Michigan.

More:Tony Perkins' career-high, strong guard play leads Iowa basketball past Maryland

He'd become accustomed to being a key player in Iowa's plans, not an expendable one in crunch time.

“Just thinking too much (like), ‘Should I do this? Should I shoot this open shot?’” Perkins said. “Just in my own head, kind of. That was really it.”

But Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Perkins of old returned, and then some. In fact, Perkins played some of his best-ever basketball as a Hawkeye in Iowa’s 81-67 win against Maryland – a career-high 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting in 37½ minutes.

And he pronounced that his slump is over.

Tony Perkins soars for a second-half dunk against Maryland as part of his career-high 22 points in Iowa's 81-67 win.

“I’m more of a confidence guy. I was struggling. I was just in my own head,” Perkins said. “Now I’m back to myself. I’m good.”

His final field goal sent an exclamation-point message of sorts: A fast-break dunk between two Maryland players to extend Iowa’s lead to 49-44 after Maryland crept within 3.

Perkins confessed a few of his teammates were razzing him at halftime, wondering (good-naturedly) why he wasn’t dunking like he used to.

“So, when I got it, I was like, forget it,” the high-flying Perkins said. “I’m going to go dunk it so they shut up.”

Just like Payton Sandfort emerged from a slump recently (and continued his hot play Sunday, with 12 points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes) when Iowa needed him most, Perkins’ performance was necessary on Sunday. He scored 22 of Iowa’s first 50 points, serving as a catalyst while big-minute big-men Kris Murray and Filip Rebraca played single-digit minutes in the first half with foul trouble.

Then, Perkins helped facilitate a big Murray finish. Murray, the Hawkeyes’ star forward, scored 17 of his 19 points in the final 13 minutes, helping to put the Hawkeyes’ fourth straight win to bed in reasonably comfortable fashion.

“When Tony’s going, whether it’s in transition or with his pull-up game,” said head coach Fran McCaffery, “it’s going to impact everyone else.”

That pull-up jumper was what had been missing for Perkins recently. But he connected on his first one Sunday.

That was all he needed to see.

“It let me know I’m on today,” Perkins said. “… My energy started coming, so I knew what kind of game I was going to have.”

Think back to Iowa’s big road win early in the season at Seton Hall: Perkins was a key factor in that, with 18 gritty points as he navigated to the basket through the lane.

That element to Perkins' game was back on display Sunday.

“I’m a huge fan of the way he plays. I think he’s kind of their glue guy,” said Maryland coach Kevin Willard. “… He doesn’t take a 3, and he gets 22 points. He just knows who he is. He knows his game he sticks to it. … When you have a guy like that, it just helps everyone else on the offensive end.”

And with Perkins humming, so were the Hawkeyes. They clicked for 60% shooting (33-for-55), a season-best. Perkins, Sandfort and Connor McCaffery (12 points, four assists, three steals in 39:51 playing time) combined to shoot 19-for-25 (76%).

“It's huge because he's so key. He brings energy. He brings toughness. He brings a lot to our squad,” Connor McCaffery said. “It’s just another dimension teams have to worry about and guard.”

And now the Hawkeyes, who started 0-3 in Big Ten play, are above .500 in the conference and are trending up. They improved to 12-6 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten – ending the week in fifth place in the 14-team league. During this four-game win streak, Sandfort and Perkins have awakened as Murray, Connor McCaffery and Rebraca have been terrific.

Remember, Iowa won eight of its final 10 regular-season games then rattled off four wins in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament a year ago. That 12-2 run came after Perkins was inserted into the starting lineup. He’s been a spark for success before, and he believes it can happen again.

There is a lot of danger in getting too high or too low after one game out of 31 in the regular season. But the Hawkeyes looked as good as they have all season Sunday.

Perkins was a big reason for that.

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.