I was openly disdainful of this game in my preview and I have been disdainful of Iowa's non-conference schedule overall, especially this opening segment of cupcake after cupcake after cupcake. So naturally Grambling State actually had a lead on Iowa in the second half of this game. No, really -- Anthony Gaston drilled a 3-pointer to put Grambling State up 59-56 with 11 minutes to go in the second half, which capped a 12-2 run by Grambling early in the second half. I was decidedly not excited about writing a recap of this game at that point.
Fortunately, that surge by Grambling State seemed to finally light a fire under Iowa. After stumbling through much of the game and looking sloppy and disinterested (especially on defense), Iowa dug in and ripped off a 14-0 run to retake control of the game. That proved to be the difference; Iowa maintained around a 10-point lead for most of the remainder of the game, finally winning 85-74. Iowa may have won by double digits, but by no means was this a blowout or a rout. Perhaps no stat sums up how much of a grind this was than the fact that five Iowa players (Bohannon, Garza, Cook, Moss, and Nunge) played around 30 minutes; there's no chance that was the plan coming into a game against Grambling State.
One of the silver linings of this uninspired performance was that it did show us who's in Fran's circle of trust right now: Bohannon, Garza, Cook, Moss, and Nunge. I'd put Ellingson in there as well, although he played limited minutes (three) in the second half, and obviously Baer will be in there too when he returns from his hand injury. Cordell Pemsl played 13 minutes total, but only five minutes in the second half; my hunch is that Pemsl's sloppiness with the ball (three turnovers) did not endear him to Fran tonight. Ryan Kriener and Ahmad Wagner played 11 and 12 minutes total, but only three and five minutes in the second half, respectively. They are not in the circle of trust. Nor are Maishe Dailey (zero minutes in the second half) or Dom Uhl (zero minutes total).
The other silver lining is that Iowa's true freshmen definitely impressed tonight, particularly Jack Nunge. Nunge was definitely Iowa's player of the game: a team-high 17 points on 6/8 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists, a block, and no turnovers. Nunge showed off his versatility as a scorer, too, going 3/5 from 3-point range, but also going 2/3 from the free throw line, and making some baskets near the rim, too. Obviously a performance like that against a team like Grambling State involves some caveats, but his skill set is hugely impressive and watching him is going to be very, very fun. Iowa's other true freshman star, Luka Garza, wasn't chopped liver tonight, either -- he had 13 points on 6/9 shooting (nice), a team-high seven rebounds, and three blocks, two steals, and two assists. There was a sequence in the second half where Garza and Nunge worked some high-low action with Garza assisting a Nunge bucket and then Nunge assisting a Garza bucket; it's hard not to get very, very excited about the next few years when you see things like that.
Isaiah Moss and Tyler Cook started hot -- 10 points on 2/4 shooting and 11 points on 3/5 shooting, respectively, in the first half -- but were quieter in the second half (just five points and four points, respectively), although Moss did drain the three-pointer that ignited Iowa's 14-0 run to retake control of the game. Cook also had seven rebounds, including four offensive boards, although his three turnovers were costly. Moss added two assists and two steals with his 15 points. Iowa's other double-digit scorer was Bohannon, who finished with 12 points, but most of those came on late free throws as Grambling tried to extend the game. Bohannon was just 1/7 from the field (9/10 at the free throw line), and 1/4 from long range. He had seven assists against one turnover, including five dimes in the second half. And in our regularly scheduled #FreeThrowWatch update, freebies were generally a positive for Iowa in this one -- they shot 27/36 (75%) from the line, which is a winnable number. Iowa's bigs were 14/22; Pemsl (3/4) and Cook (7/9) were solid, but Garza struggled a lot (1/4).
Iowa turnovers helped Grambling keep the game close in the first half; nine Iowa giveaways led to 11 Grambling State points. Turnovers also helped key Grambling's second half run. For the game, Iowa ended up with 13 turnovers to 11, but Grambling made much more use of the turnovers they forced, outscoring Iowa 21-12 in points off turnovers. They also outdid Iowa on the offensive glass (13-10) and while they didn't turn that edge into an advantage in second chance points (Iowa outscored them 13-12 in second chance points), it did help them extend possessions and prevent Iowa's offense from having more opportunities to score.
Finally, about that defense... woof. Grambling scored 1.10 points per possession for the game and 1.16 PPP in the second half. Against Grambling. Iowa had a significant size advantage in the game, but Grambling had a definite quickness advantage and they used that well. Iowa's defensive intensity was lacking and when you're a half-step slow to close out or rotate over, teams will make you pay. Better teams than Grambling could really make Iowa hurt for a defensive performance this lackluster. Iowa's defense was improved in the 14-0 run they used to blow the game open, but even that stretch seemed to feature Grambling just missing several pretty good looks rather than Iowa forcing a lot of turnovers or harassing Grambling into poor shots. This game really needs to light a fire under Iowa, especially on the defensive end, because the cupcake stretch is (finally) pretty much over.
There were a few highlights from the game:
Hawkeyes Outlast Grambling State pic.twitter.com/ED8swNesNZ
— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) November 17, 2017
NEXT: Iowa heads to the Grand Cayman Islands for some basketball on the beach in the inaugural Cayman Islands Classic. They face Louisiana in their first game there on Monday (11 AM CT).