Big nights by Filip Rebraca, Payton Sandfort power Iowa men's basketball past Northwestern

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY -- A seesaw contest between Iowa and Northwestern men's basketball gave way to Hawkeye domination down the stretch.

Northwestern held a 56-55 lead with 10:32 to play, Iowa responded with a 30-15 run to win by a comfortable 86-70 margin. Hawkeye center Filip Rebraca noted afterward there was a big motivating factor.

"We know what this night is for and who we're playing for," Rebraca said. "We just had to turn it up another gear. We're not losing this game, that's out of the question. I think we all understood that."

Tuesday night was Chris Street Remembrance Night in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Hawkeye legend's death. In a game that was originally scheduled for Jan. 18 and rescheduled to Tuesday, the Street family was in attendance and was honored early in the first half and the Hawkeyes carried that emotion into a second straight win.

Rebraca recorded a double-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, Payton Sandfort matched that 20 and also chipped in four rebounds and five assists. A balanced attack that saw five Hawkeyes in double figures helped Iowa to its 14th win this season.

And following the win, Chris Street's parents, Mike and Patty, addressed the team.

More:Inside the new Chris Street documentary: How it brings even the filmmakers to tears

"It's very important to me but it's very important to this program," said coach Fran McCaffery. "It's bigger than this team. Anyone that's worn this jersey before takes great pride and there's no greater example than Chris Street of what a teammate, athlete and competitor should be. And the connection that remains with his family and this program is so important to all of us."

Filip Rebraca's ascension continues to be a major storyline

It was an uncharacteristic night for star Kris Murray, whose 16 points were his sixth-fewest this season, but Rebraca more than filled the void on Tuesday night. He noted after the game that he wasn't pleased with his last outing against Rutgers (7 points, six rebounds) and came out aggressively against Northwestern. He scored the team's first 6 points of the contest and carried that momentum throughout the game.

There isn't an official Big Ten most improved player award, but if there was there'd be a good case for the sixth-year senior. Rebraca's improved significantly from his 5-point, five-rebound per game output last season to averaging nearly 14 points per game and nine rebounds this season. He's also shooting 56% from the field (up three points from last year) and 65% from the free throw line (up five points).

Rebraca was vocal throughout the off-season about his dissatisfaction with his play last season and the motivation for a breakout finale with the Hawkeyes. Twenty-two games into this season and it's hard to imagine where Iowa would be had he not taken that big leap.

"Filip, you know it was going to happen," McCaffery said. "He had done it before (in the Horizon League at North Dakota), he just needed to do it in (the Big Ten)."

Payton Sandfort has arrived as a player and as a team leader

Alongside Rebraca on Tuesday night was sophomore sharpshooter Payton Sandfort, who had a trio of key 3-pointers (five in total) that were big momentum plays:

  • His 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer tied the game at 39
  • Another at the 7:11 mark in the second half gave Iowa its biggest lead (to that Point), 65-59
  • A 3-pointer plus the foul at the 3:36 mark in the second half, coupled with a subsequent technical foul on Northwestern coach Chris Collins became a rare 6-point play

Since Sandfordt's early struggles in conference play (1-for-14 start from beyond the arc), he's connected on 19-35 (54%). And that level of 3-point shooting has added another dimension to Iowa's team. But there's another aspect of who he is on Iowa's team that deserves more attention.

More:It looks like Payton Sandfort's slump is over. That adds another dimension to Iowa basketball

Sandfort was credited as one of the leaders in Iowa's win over Indiana this month, which could prove to be Iowa's turning point this season. His vocal presence has been apparent this month, and that's with a veteran-laden team. McCaffery said there are no egos on the team and everyone feels comfortable speaking out, but Sandfort's ascension in that regard is still noticeable.

And the confidence to speak out even during a slump has led to his breakout at this point in the year.

"I've always emphasized as myself as a leader," Sandfort said. "And I went through that rough stretch but talking to people, it was really my leadership that brought me out of that. Focusing on leadership instead of purely just shooting the ball opened up everything for me."

Home cooking is exactly what Iowa basketball needed

Off of two tough losses on the road, Iowa returned home and captured two wins of three on its homestand. Right now, the Hawkeyes are 10-2 at home. Tuesday night's win was Iowa's second in the last three days.

It doesn't get any easier, however, as Iowa is set to host rival Illinois on Saturday afternoon. The Illini are currently in second place in the crowded upper half of the Big Ten. This is the only meeting this season, which puts extra importance on the game. In a tightly contested conference this year, it'll be the slimmest of margins that determines seeding in the Big Ten Tournament and the coveted double byes.

More:Following anxiety bout, Iowa's Patrick McCaffery is back and focused solely on basketball

"It's really good that we got to beat (Rutgers and Northwestern) but we're not satisfied," Rebraca said. "We know that Illinois is a really good team. I feel like this win makes the (Illinois) game even bigger, so we're hungry."