Iowa men's basketball rallies vs. Michigan State for one of program's greatest comebacks

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — With two minutes to play, only a handful of people believed Iowa men's basketball would walk out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a win over Michigan State.

Coach Fran McCaffery received a technical foul at the 2:03 mark and the ensuing free throws gave Michigan State an 89-76 lead. The Spartans maintained a strong lead and were in control by a 91-78 margin with 1:34 to play, and Hawkeye fans began their exits up the concourse.

"I'm not going to lie, I thought the game was over," said junior guard Tony Perkins. "Probably everyone did."

But Perkins added that it didn't stop him or his teammates from playing until the final buzzer. In the closing seconds of Saturday afternoon's game, Iowa's 3-point shot, which had deserted them as of late, finally came alive. Six 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds sent the game into overtime, and the Hawkeyes never looked back.

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Overall, a resurgent 17-for-36 effort from long range (47%), including six by sophomore Payton Sandfort lifted Iowa past Michigan State by a 112-106 margin in one of the more improbable comebacks in recent memory.

How did Iowa do it? McCaffery said the answer is rather simple.

"That's a simple answer, the character in that locker room," McCaffery said. "It's a resilient group. They were really connected: In every huddle, in every timeout and on the floor. There was a lot of communication and anything short of that, you have no chance in a situation like that. So I'm really proud of them for how they just stuck together and remained connected and kept competing."

Five Hawkeys finished in double-figures: Kris Murray (26), Perkins (24), Sandfort (22), Filip Rebraca (18) and Connor McCaffery (10). Michigan State's 63% shooting from the field was nearly too much to overcome, but Iowa showed enough resiliency down the stretch.

With the win, Iowa improves to 18-11 overall, 10-8 in Big Ten play and delivered a much-needed bounce-back win.

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"It was definitely a frustrating week to start," Murray said. "We knew we didn't play well, especially on offense (against Wisconsin). We knew this was a big game, especially at the end of the month with (conference tournament) seeding and knew it was a game that we couldn't give up on."

Recapping Iowa's furious comeback in the closing seconds

The Hawkeyes fought their way back in regulation behind a flurry of 3-pointers by several different players: Murray, Connor McCaffery, Patrick McCaffery and Sandfort. Michigan State entered Saturday as the Big Ten's best defense against the 3-ball (29%). Fran McCaffery credits his players' urgency and execution to complete the comeback.

"At some point, you got to make a play," Fran McCaffery said. "You got to move it, move it, share it, drive and kick, set a screen, get somebody open. And we did make five 3s, but they were open. You still got make them, so credit our guys."

Iowa didn't miss a field goal attempt (all 3-pointers) in the game's final 30 seconds, but needed a break since Michigan State was shooting 86% (25-29) from free throw line to that point. After Iowa's fourth 3-pointer, cutting the deficit to 100-98, Michigan State's AJ Hoggard missed his second of two free throws. That gave the Hawkeyes the opening they needed to tie the game with 10 seconds remaining.

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Sandfort, who missed a potential game-winning shot at Michigan State in January, had the ball in his hands with a chance to tie the game.

This time he didn't miss.

"I knew it was going in when (Hoggard) missed the free throw," Sandfort said. "The whole time I kept thinking about the game a few years ago, I think I was a sophomore in high school and I watched (former Iowa player Jordan Bohannon) hit that 3 against Northwestern, it felt really similar to that. And I was thinking about that during the game. So I was like, well just give me a shot and let's see what happens. Pretty special night."

Iowa forward Payton Sandfort, left, reacts after making a 3-point basket on Saturday.

Once the game reached overtime, there was little doubt of who would be the victor.

"Once it got to overtime, that's when I knew we would win," Perkins said. "The crowd was in it, we were in it, we were together. Our main goal then was to keep playing and make sure we stopped their scorers, and they shot it well but we played hard."

Perkins led all players with 6 overtime points. After shooting 63% in regulation, Michigan State was held to just 1-of-5 shooting in the extra period.

"This (win) does a lot (for us)," Perkins said. "We lost two in a row, but now we win this one and it allows us to go into the next one with that boosting thinking we're going to win. Everyone's confidence should be up, everyone's confidence will be up, actually."

Hawkeyes won the game thanks to a 3-point resurgence

After a 6-for-52 stretch from long range, the biggest question looming over Saturday's contest was obvious: Could Iowa break its recent shooting slump?

Hawkeye fans anxiously waited to see if their presence would inspire better perimeter shooting in the comforts of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. After two bad misses, Connor McCaffery connected on a 3-pointer at the 14:47 mark of the first half to give Iowa a 15-12 advantage. However, three consecutive misses followed and the shooting woes continued.

In place of 3-pointers, Iowa relied on Rebraca for a steady source of offense. The fifth-year senior opened the game 5-for-5 from the field (all within the first 10 minutes of play) and paced Iowa to a 5-point lead midway through the first half. Then the Hawkeyes found a source of consistent shooting from Sandfort.

"I just feel like he has an uncanny ability to just come on with the same level of confidence," Fran McCaffery said. "He was disappointed he missed (in Iowa's last game at Michigan State) but you kind of felt like 'Okay, if he gets a shot again, he's going to make it.' That's how I feel about him."

Sandfort accounted for half of Iowa's six 3-pointers in the first half. At the break, the Hawkeyes were at 38% (their home average this season is 36%) but the comfort of playing at home sunk in even more for the second half, where Iowa shot 55%. By the game's end, six different players made at least one 3-pointer.

Another element that contributed to more shooting opportunities was an impressive rebounding effort. Iowa won the battle on the offensive glass by a decisive 15-4 margin, leading to 29 second-chance points.

Perkins alluded to an unofficial player meeting leading up to the game where the team reaffirmed their confidence in each other to make perimeter shots. A return back to Iowa City arrived at the perfect time and now there's a renewed confidence that the shooting will travel on Tuesday at No. 17 Indiana, where they have a chance to pick up another quad 1 win.

"We play our game the way that we should, we're pretty special offensively," Sandfort said. "We've been away from that the last few games. Passes have been off leading to shots being off. Everybody's rhythm was off. But we really emphasized that in practice the last few days and ran with it. And it took an incredible effort to beat (Michigan State)."

What does Saturday's win mean for Iowa men's basketball?

Iowa's back-to-back losses caused unrest within the fan base as the regular season creeps to an end, but Saturday's win solidified the Hawkeyes as an NCAA tournament team. Road struggles and defensive breakdowns are still valid concerns, but Iowa's ability to stay in games should not be shortchanged.

A dip in the NET rankings by Illinois (down to No. 32) and Seton Hall (down to No. 78) meant Iowa entered Saturday with two fewer quad 1 wins and was down to just four. Saturday's Michigan State game was in quad 2 territory, where Iowa's record improves to 8-2.

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Michigan State guard Tre Holloman, right, shoots the ball as Iowa forward Patrick McCaffery defends.

Within the Big Ten, Iowa improves to 10-8 in conference play. Rutgers (9-8) and Penn State (8-9) will play each other Sunday and Wisconsin (8-9), who has the tiebreaker over Iowa, will play Michigan on Sunday.