Can't stop, won't stop... beating Top 25 opponents at home. For the third straight home game, a ranked opponent came into Carver-Hawkeye Arena -- and for the third straight time they left with an L.
#12 Maryland? Blasted 'em.
#19 Michigan? Outlasted 'em.
#24 Rutgers? Well, this was another outlasted 'em game.
I can't remember the last time Iowa won three straight home games against ranked opponents; it may have never happened before this year. (It's pretty rare to get three straight home games against Top 25 teams, after all.) [Ed. Note: Iowa history expert Matt Benson informs me that Iowa also accomplished this feat back in 2006.Thanks, Matt! -- RB]
This was a knock-down, drag 'em out slugfest between two good teams that went down to the wire -- and lived up to the spotlight as the only game between ranked teams tonight. Rutgers and Iowa entered this game near the top of the Big Ten standings and their performances tonight suggested that status wasn't a fluke; these are two very good teams who could be near the top of the league standings for the long haul this season.
The first half was all about runs, with both Iowa and Rutgers trading surges of momentum. Iowa opened up the first substantial lead of the game with a 10-0 run that took them from 14-10 down to 20-14 ahead in the span of three minutes thanks to a pair of Luka Garza baskets and a pair of threes from CJ Fredrick and Ryan Kriener. Rutgers answered with a quick 6-0 run of their own to tie the game and went on a 7-0 run a few minutes later to open up a 35-28 lead. Iowa and Rutgers more or less traded buckets until halftime after that and the Scarlet Knights went into the break up 43-38. That was a bad sign given that Iowa was 0-4 this year when trailing at the half.
Rutgers found huge success in the first half off turnovers and some unusually hot three-point shooting. The Scarlet Knights forced Iowa into eight giveaways, which they turned into a 17 points; Rutgers had a massive 17-4 edge in points off turnovers in the first 20 minutes of the game. Rutgers was also red hot from behind the arc, draining 6 of 11 long range attempts, including more than a few contested looks. The Jersey boys entered this game making 30% of their 3s (299th in the country), so that kind of lights-out shooting didn't seem particularly sustainable.
And, thankfully, it wasn't. After going 6/11 from long range in the first half, Rutgers made just 1/10 tries from deep in the second half. Rutgers also stopped getting quite as many cheap points off turnovers. Iowa didn't completely stop giving the ball away -- they coughed it up seven times in the second half -- but they did at least manage to prevent the Scarlet Knights from converting those miscues into easy buckets quite as often; Rutgers had just nine points off turnovers in the second half. With fewer easy buckets coming and no threes to speak of, Rutgers' offense slowed down in a big way in the second half -- at least for a while.
After going down eight early, Iowa went on a 33-13 run of their own over a nine-minute stretch to open up their biggest lead of the game at 69-59. Iowa hit the afterburners and for around 10 minutes, everything was glorious. Garza was absolutely unstoppable during that stretch -- on both ends of the court! -- and had 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks during that stretch of play. The Peacock was flashing his plumage in all directions and it was a glorious sight to see. It looked like Iowa might be able to cruise to another big home win.
But no. There's not much "cruising" in this year's Big Ten, especially against a team as good as this Rutgers team. This time it was Iowa's turn for the offense to dry up; they went over eight minutes of game time without a field goal (between Joe Toussaint's twisting layup at 10:25 to Fredrick's layup with 2:16 to play). Iowa scored just seven points during that barren stretch, all at the free throw line. Rutgers, thankfully, wasn't an offensive dynamo themselves, but they were able to slowly grind away at Iowa's lead, cutting it from nine to six to five to four to two to one to zero -- and even taking a 77-76 lead of their own with 2:25 to play after a pair of Ron Harper, Jr. free throws. Iowa's offense stirred from its slumber with a well-executed play that resulted in Fredrick's layup. A Rutgers miss and a clutch Joe Wieskamp three later and Iowa had a four-point edge and a little bit of breathing room. Rutgers cut the lead to two after a pair of Harper free throws, but could never tie the game or retake the lead; some clutch free throw shooting from Connor McCaffery (four straight makes in the final 16 seconds) helped Iowa ice the victory.
In fact, much as it did against Michigan on Friday night, free throw shooting helped power Iowa to a victory here. Iowa's shooting slowed down in the second half -- just 13/29 overall from the floor and only 4/13 from three-point range -- but they mitigated that with a 17/21 showing at the free throw line. In the second half, Garza went 4/5 at the line, McCaffery went 4/4, and Wieskamp went 6/6. Make your free throws, kids.
Wieskamp and Garza were the twin engines powering Iowa's comeback in the second half. Garza had a double double... in the second half alone. He had 14 points (on 4/8 shooting) and 10 rebounds after the break, plus four blocks and a steal. Garza's mainly been known for his scoring prowess, particularly his low post wizardry, but he made a big impact on the defensive end of things in this one, which was great to see. Wieskamp had 15 points (on 4/5 shooting), three rebounds, two assists, and a block in the second half. His buckets early in the half helped key Iowa's comeback, his free throw shooting helped keep Iowa going during the fallow period from the field, and he added to his clutch resume against Rutgers with that late, game-icing three tonight.
But Iowa also got big second half minutes from Ryan Kriener (6 points, a rebound, and an assist) and Joe Toussaint (6 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal) tonight. The latter was especially gratifying to see; Toussaint has struggled a lot in Iowa's last few games, but he shook off those struggles and played brilliantly in this game, holding his own against some good Rutgers guards. Toussaint is a freshman in the Big Ten so there are going to be peaks and valleys in his performance; tonight was a clear peak.
Overall, Luka Garza led Iowa with another monstrous performance: 28 points, 13 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 steals. At this point we don't bat an eye at numbers like that because he's been doing it all season long, but they really are incredible numbers. This was another brilliant game in a long stretch of brilliance, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we truly are witnessing something special from Garza this season. He is playing at a level that few Iowa players ever reach and if they do, it's generally just for a few games; he's doing it game after game, week after week, month after month.
Three other Iowa players scored in double figures in this game, led by Wieskamp with 18 points on 5/9 shooting. He also had four rebounds, four assists, and a block in another strong all-around showing from Iowa's not-so-average Joe. Iowa's other Joe was also quite good in this game; Toussaint went for 14 points on 5/8 shooting, plus seven rebounds, four assists, and a steal. This was just what the doctor ordered after a few sluggish outings from Toussaint. Kriener was the final Iowa player in double figures; he poured in 11 points off the bench on 4/7 shooting, to go with two rebounds and two assists.
This game featured the Big Ten's best offense (overall and in conference play) in Iowa against its best defense (in conference play) in Rutgers -- and offense won this round. Only one team had cracked the 80-point threshold against Rutgers this season before Iowa did so tonight -- St. Bonaventure back in November. Only one Big Ten team had even managed to top 65 against them (Michigan State, with 77 back in December) and in 2020 no Big Ten squad had mustered more than 62 points against the Scarlet Knights' smothering defense. Rutgers entered the game with a Top 10 defensive efficiency rating and was holding teams to 42.9% shooting from 2-point range. Iowa scored 85 points on them at a 1.2 points per possession clip and made 67% of their 2-point attempts in this game. And they did all with a near-10 minute dry spell in the second half; this Iowa offense is pretty damn special, folks.
This whole team is something special. They shook off a shaky first half and then weathered a bad stretch (and a strong Rutgers comeback effort) in the second half to come away with a win over a good team. This was the sort of game that Iowa teams in recent years often found a way to lose; this Iowa team flipped that script and found a way to win. You love to see it.