Kris Murray's dominant second half, stout defense lift Iowa basketball over Minnesota

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

MINNEAPOLIS − Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery cautioned anyone who penciled in Iowa's game at Minnesota on Sunday as an easy victory, and it turned out to be anything but.

The Hawkeyes were well aware of the Big Ten's parity, entering Sunday with a 0-4 record against teams below .500 in the conference. Iowa also was guilty of overlooking an opponent earlier this season in a shocking loss to Eastern Illinois. A game that Iowa actually led wire-to-wire but never felt out of reach for Minnesota was a nice surprise to the fans inside of Williams Arena expecting a blowout win for the road team.

"I think (second-year Minnesota coach Ben Johnson) has done a fabulous job," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "He's kept them hungry and motivated, they're competing and he's taking this opportunity to play his young guys and let them grow … knew they were going to battle us defensively and on the glass. I have respect for their talent."

But as the game continued, Iowa's Kris Murray proved to be too much for the Gophers. The star junior delivered another stat-filled performance: 28 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks and 3 steals as the Hawkeyes pulled away late for a 68-56 win. His dominant second half consisting of 18 points (8-12 shooting) and 7 rebounds gave the Hawkeyes the push they needed to fend off Minnesota.

With the win, Iowa improved to 16-9 overall and 8-6 in Big Ten play.

"It's definitely a big win, it gets us to No. 8 in the Big Ten," Murray said. "There's no easy wins. It's definitely good especially in February, we just got to take it one game at a time."

It was a weird first half, but Iowa rolled with the punches

The opening minutes pointed to a runaway victory for the Hawkeyes. Guard Tony Perkins scored the game's first basket in a matter of seconds, then stole the ball on Minnesota's first possession then converted it into a layup plus the foul, and Iowa led 5-0 in the opening minute. Iowa's strong play continued for the next few minutes, shooting 5-of-7 from the field and holding an early 11-2 lead with 16:37 remaining. Then, an imaginary lid covered the Hawkeyes' basket and it allowed for the Golden Gophers to insert themselves into the contest.

The remainder of the first half saw Iowa shoot just 8-of-32 (25%) from the field. The total distribution of misses was particularly troubling: 10-of-24 on layup chances, 1-of-7 from 3-point range and 5-of-10 from the free throw line. Despite 15 more shot attempts than Minnesota, which was an efficient 13-of-24 from the field, Iowa led by a slim 32-29 advantage at halftime.

"We were probably lucky to be ahead at that point," McCaffery said postgame.

On paper, the first half was tailor-made for Iowa to hold a sizable lead. The Hawkeyes dominated the glass, preventing Minnesota from recording a single offensive rebound while Iowa grabbed nine of its own misses. Hawkeye players noted after Thursday's Purdue loss that their press defense wasn't aggressive enough in the first half, but that wasn't the case on Sunday as the team forced 10 first-half turnovers. However, the surplus of extra shot opportunities didn't lead to a surplus of points; Iowa scored just six second-chance points and nine points off turnovers.

A halftime conversation allowed for the Hawkeyes to recalibrate and put the inexplicable misses in the first half behind them.

"We understood that we had a lot of good shots," forward Filip Rebraca said. "Things weren't falling for us but we battled through that. We understood we had missed layups, missed good looks but it can't influence our game. We let it happen in the first half, in the second half we said that if we miss, don't let (Minnesota) get an easy one on the other end. Eventually shots started falling for us."

Ta'lon Cooper of Minnesota drives to the basket while Iowa's Ahron Ulis defends in the first half of Sunday's game at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

The Hawkeyes shot a better percentage in the second half (45%) but relied on defense to keep any comeback attempts at bay. Coach McCaffery kept his rotation short in the second half, with each starter playing at least 15 minutes. The result was a connected defensive effort that saw the Hawkeyes limit Minnesota to just one made field goal in the final 10 minutes of the game.

"I thought throughout the course of the game we figured out what they were trying to accomplish," Fran McCaffery said. "We had to lock into drivers and try to contest and limit them to (one shot) so we could run, to be able to do that against a team that's coming at you and runs good stuff … a really good job by our guys."

Kris Murray's All Big-Ten, All-American campaign continued on Sunday

Iowa's best player, Murray, provided key moments throughout the second half on Sunday. It was a tough start for Murray who shot just 4-14 in the fist half. Minnesota's game plan was to swarm with every touch and the physical style of play took some adjusting.

"I didn't get (foul) calls in the first half so I had to adjust," Murray said. "Be more aggressive, lessen my mistakes and move better without the ball in the second half."

Murray stated that the biggest part of his second half turnaround was not putting his head down as he left the court at halftime. He had a belief that he'd convert his opportunities in the second half and did so. The jump in his mental fortitude is a big reason why Iowa won the game on Sunday and why he was named to the Naismith Player of the Year midseason team this week. And if Iowa's to contend for a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, Murray will need to continue to put out great performances.

"The ball was spinning out for him, those shots usually go in," Fran McCaffery said. "For him to come back and finish it off with 28 (points) and 14 (rebounds) is really impressive to me and says a lot about him."

A much better rebounding effort might've been the biggest difference on Sunday

The Hawkeyes were on the wrong end of rebounding margin in their last game against Purdue, a double-digit loss. Players said it was a concerted effort to be better against Minnesota and they were to the tune of a +11 margin for the game. The offense sputtered against Purdue but Iowa didn't get nearly enough rebounds back for second chance points. On Sunday, the team dominated offensive rebounds (17-2) and second chance points (15-2).

One possession sticks out in particular: in what might've been the play of the game, a trio of offensive rebounds by Connor McCaffery, Murray and Rebraca paved the way for a McCaffery 3-pointer that extended Iowa's lead to 10 points with about five minutes to play and Minnesota never got back within single digits.

Murray led the team with 14 but three other Hawkeye added at leas five rebounds: Connor McCaffery (10), Rebraca (8) and Perkins (7). Even if offensive rebounds weren't converted into points in the first half, just keeping Minnesota from gaining more scoring chances made the difference on Sunday.

"(Minnesota) had a good game plan to slow the game down," Connor McCaffery said. "We really needed to fight and get those extra possessions on the glass when we're having shots that we normally make roll out on us or we're missing free throws. Those are plays that are really important throughout the game."

Iowa forward Kris Murray (24) works around Minnesota forward Jamison Battle (10) in the first half of Sunday's game in Minneapolis.

It wasn't the completely dominating performance that Hawkeye fans expected but they can feel good about their team finding a way to win by double-digits on the road. Next up: a few days of rest and a rematch against Ohio State, which gave Iowa an ugly loss in Columbus a few weeks ago.