Home sweet home. Iowa returned home after a painful loss at Michigan State earlier this week and for the 14th straight time this year (and the 9th time in league play) the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena were just what the doctor ordered for the Hawkeyes, as they used a big second half to coast to a 77-68 win over #16 Penn State.
The first half was reminiscent of the first time these teams met, back at The Palestra in Philadelphia back in early January -- a frenetic, back-and-forth affair with both teams trading shots for 20 minutes. There were seven lead changes and two ties in the first half as neither team was able to assert control of the game. Iowa led just 35-34 at the break.
Taking control was exactly what Iowa did in the second half, though. The Hawkeyes used a quick 10-2 run in the first four minutes of the half to open up a nine-point lead. Iowa kept Penn State at arm's length the rest of the game -- their lead stayed around 10-12 points for most of the half and the Nittany Lions never got things closer than 8 points. Penn State's last surge, to cut the lead to eight with just under six minutes to play, was answered by a quick 9-0 run that gave Iowa their biggest lead of the game (17 points) with four minutes to play. It was chips and salsa time from that point on.
One of the stories of the game for Iowa -- as he is every game -- was Luka Garza. Garza didn't have his best game today... but here's the thing about Luka Garza: even when he's not good... he's still really freaking good. Garza was not very good in the first half of this game -- after making his first two shots (a three-pointer and a layup), he made just one of his next 14 (!) shots in the opening 20 minutes, finishing 3/16 from the field at the break. He still had eight rebounds and two blocks and continued to play with his trademark non-stop effort, so he was certainly still finding positive ways to impact the game even without being able to find his shooting rhythm.
But you also can't keep Garza down for long and after a forgettable first half shooting the ball, Garza found his rhythm in the second half and again looked like the unstoppable Garzilla we've come to know and love all season long. He went 8/12 from the floor after the break and scored 18 points in the second half alone. And he kept up his effort on the glass (nine boards) and as a shot-blocker (two more blocks). All told, Garza ended up with 25 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks, and an assist -- in what qualifies as an "off" game for him! (He ended up shooting 11/28 from the floor.) We should all be so fortunate to have "off" games as productive as this one.
Thanks to his monster second half, Garza was able to keep up his assault on the Iowa record books too. For instance, after today's outing Garza has:
- 14 consecutive games with at least 20 points (a new Iowa record)
- 10 consecutive games against Top 25 opponents with at least 20 points
- And he's up to #2 on the single-season scoring list (686 points), just 13 points behind John Johnson's record of 699 points
LUKA. GETS. BUCKETS.
Another key story for Iowa in this game was the very welcome return of CJ Fredrick. Fredrick ended the game with 10 points (on 4/8 shooting), along with three assists, two rebounds, and a block, but he did most of his damage in the first half. He gave Iowa a tremendous spark in that half, leading the team with 8 points. Having him back made a world of difference; the overall ball-handling and spacing were improved and the offense just flowed better.
His return also had the knock-on effect of improving Iowa's bench. Fredrick's return to the starting lineup moved Ryan Kriener back to his sixth man role and he was part of an Iowa bench that was enormously effective today. Kriener led the way with 8 points, 5 rebounds, and a block, but Cordell Pemsl also had another very nice game, with 6 points, 6 rebounds, a block, and an assist. And Bakari Evelyn also made some big shots; he finished with 7 points, 4 assists, and a steal and his free throws and three-pointer near the end of the game proved to be the dagger in Penn State's final comeback bid.
Shout-out to Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery as well. Toussaint had just two points (on 1/5 shooting), but he had a career-high 8 assists and also grabbed two steals. His energy and quickness were key for Iowa, especially in the early part of the second half when Iowa firmly took control of the game. McCaffery, meanwhile, brought his customary stability to Iowa's play; he finished with 6 points (on 2/2 shooting!) while dishing out four assists, grabbing two rebounds, and collecting a steal. And he did it all while not turning the ball over. Connor gets called a "glue guy" a lot and that's reasonable, but it also might undersell his importance to this team; he makes everything about this team work just a little bit better, especially on offense.
Joe Wieskamp was Iowa's second-leading scorer today, with 13 points, but his recent struggles haven't gone away entirely, especially when it comes to shooting the ball -- Wieskamp was just 3/10 from the floor in this game, including 1/4 from long range. He also had six rebounds and an assist. It's disappointing to watch Wieskamp struggle with this shooting slump, though the good news is that Iowa was still able to win easily against a good team even without a big game from Wieskamp. But the sooner he can break out of his slump, the better.
With the win, Iowa improved to 11-7 in the Big Ten and leaped all the way from sixth place in the Big Ten standings to... sixth place in the Big Ten standings. D'oh. For Iowa to gain ground in the race for a Top 4 finish, they'll need Wisconsin (hosting Minnesota) and/or Illinois (hosting Indiana) to lose tomorrow. (It probably wouldn't hurt if Michigan State, playing at Maryland this evening, also lost.) But that's out of Iowa's control at this point; they only thing they could control today was their game against Penn State -- and they did exactly what they needed to do in that regard. Iowa hit the 20-win mark for the sixth time in Fran's tenure and is guaranteed to finish with their most Big Ten wins in a season since at least 2016 -- and they're doing that despite playing short-handed for most of the season and in one of the most competitive Big Tens in recent memory. Not bad, that.
NEXT: Iowa plays their final home game of the season against Purdue (15-14, 8-10 Big Ten) on Tuesday at 8 PM CT (BTN).