PISCATAWAY, NJ — Shortly after Iowa’s comeback win over Indiana last Thursday, coach Fran McCaffery explained that one of the key takeaways was that his team was in a slugfest but this time emerged victorious.
The Hawkeyes had been their own worst enemy lately, digging big early holes and having to climb out of them, but the win in Indiana felt like a potential game changer. But there was only one way to prove it, and with another strong performance, this time on the Rutgers road on Sunday afternoon.
A supposed break in style paved the way for a quick game that appealed to the Hawkeyes. Still, the Scarlet Knights were more than up to the challenge of keeping up the pace, and the two Big Ten teams traded body punches for several hours at Jersey Mikes Arena.
With the game level in the closing minutes, Iowa needed a spark offensively and found one in an unlikely place: Payton Sandfort. The sophomore saw a bounce back game against Indiana and followed it up with 22 points on Sunday. Kris Murray scored 17 points and Filip Rebraca’s 16 points led Iowa to another much-needed win, this time 76-65 over Rutgers.
Poor first-half starts have been a constant topic of conversation since entering Big Ten play. On Sunday, the Hawkeyes attacked from both ends of the floor and didn’t let up. Iowa went 8-0 within the first four minutes of play while Rutgers was on defense with 0-3 shots and three turnovers.
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Offensive execution continued as Ahron Ulis’ three-pointers put all five Iowa starters in the scoring gap within the first six minutes of the game and assisted Iowa in six of their first seven baskets. But when half insisted, the Hawkeyes forecourt became history.
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, but Rebraca played admirably. With Connor McCaffery and Murray in deep trouble, Rebraca played every 20 minutes in the first half and finished the game with 12 points and seven rebounds, a team-best. The second and third top scorers were Murray with nine points and Sandfort with eight.
However, the first half was not without adversity. The Hawkeyes were comfortably up 30-17 with 9-11 at the half, but a 10-2 Rutgers run cut the lead to just five points with about five minutes remaining. Murray and McCaffery both went on the bench with two fouls each with three minutes left and coach McCaffery opted for an unusual lineup: Ulis, Sandfort, Tony Perkins, walk-on Carter Kingsbury and Rebraca. That group ended halftime with a 5-0 run over three minutes and Iowa led 42-30 at halftime. The Hawkeyes have suffered double-digit halftime deficits in their last three games.
The Hawkeyes survived the expected opening push from Rutgers in the opening minutes of the second half and actually extended their lead to 55-38 with 15:07 remaining. However, Iowa’s offense hit a roadblock in the middle minutes of the second half, allowing Rutgers to close the gap.
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Iowa’s hot first-half shooting faltered during a nearly seven-minute second-half goal drought. On the other hand, Rutgers used a 12-0 run to cut the lead to five points with nine minutes left. But when the Scarlet Knights were about to make a comeback, Iowa responded with a big shot of their own. and the source was one the Hawkeyes have been waiting for: Sandfort.
The Waukee sharpshooter has been on a noticeable slump for most of this season, but was Iowa’s top-grossing player in the second half. His three at 8:34 ended the goal drought and extended the lead back to eight. He then scored the next eight points for Iowa to extend the lead back into double digits, 66-55 with 5:04 remaining.
Iowa’s defense held firm in the closing minutes as Rutgers never got closer than five points. Despite a size disadvantage, the Hawkeyes kept Rutgers from second-chance points down the stretch, and clutch free throws from Ulis and Sandfort put it on hold for good.
After back-to-back quality wins, the basketball season in Iowa suddenly feels different. And if Sandfort’s recent contributions can become consistent, the Hawkeyes can re-enter the Big Ten race. Now another big game is looming: Thursday’s home game against Michigan.