Iowa 86, NC Central 69: When Cupcakes Attack

By RossWB on November 17, 2021 at 12:20 am
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Iowa beat North Carolina Central 86-69 on Tuesday night and the only two things that anyone is going to remember about this game are that Keegan Murray went absolutely SUPERNOVA and that the game was way too close for way too long. But I am a professional blog recapper and so recap I must.  After two absolute blowouts over cupcake opponents to start the season, Iowa was expected to cruise to another one-sided rout over a team ranked near the bottom of the KenPom rankings -- but this time the cupcake that bit back. 

(NOTE: I'm going to do a separate post to discuss what Keegan Murray did in this game, because it was absolutely ridiculous.) 

For much of the game, Iowa simply could not get control of the proceedings and put any distance between themselves and NC Central. The first eight minutes of the game featured four ties and 11 lead changes as the two teams essentially traded buckets for a prolonged stretch. It seemed like Iowa had turned the corner after things were tied at 23-all; they went on a 15-0 run over the next four minutes and opened up a 38-23 lead. All good, the blowout can commence, right? Wrong. The Eagles went on a 17-6 run of their own over the next five minutes to cut Iowa's lead to four at 44-40. NC Central got the lead down to three before an Ahron Ulis jumper at the buzzer gave Iowa a 49-44 lead at the break. 

An NC Central team that scored 51 points total against Memphis on Saturday had 44 points in 20 minutes against Iowa. How? Well, a team that had been terrible offensively through two games suddenly couldn't miss; they made 39% of their 2-point attempts in their first two games, but drained over 60% of their 2-point tries in the first half tonight. It wasn't a case of the Eagles just getting unusually hot or making a host of contested jumpers, either -- they were shooting lights out because most of their shots were at or near the rim. They absolutely eviscerated Iowa's defense in the first half; their dribble penetration treated Iowa's guards like they were traffic cones and Iowa's interior defense was mostly theoretical.

Foul trouble didn't help -- Filip Rebraca picked up two fouls in four minutes and entered Fran's customary two-foul jail for the remainder of the half, while Josh Ogundele saw rare early game action... and one-upped Rebraca by earning two fouls in a minute. (It's worth noting that these were extremely whistle-happy referees; they called 44 (!) total fouls in this game.) Keegan Murray also picked up a foul and was extremely reluctant to engage on defense after that, lest he also find himself confined to the bench in two-foul jail. Iowa's defensive display against a team that doesn't have a lot of size or physicality in the post was alarming and could be cause for significant concern against some of the behemoths the Hawkeyes will face in the Big Ten. 

Things did not especially improve for Iowa in the second half, at least not in the first eight or so minutes of the second half. Iowa struggled to extend their lead beyond 3-5 points, mainly because they couldn't buy a field goal; they started the half an ice cold 2/17 from the field. Not even Carver Cones are that cold. NC Central fortunately wasn't making much more than Iowa, but they did ultimately tie the game at 57-all with 12 minutes to go. To echo the great Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, it was time to hold onto some butts. Getting locked into a nail-biter with one of the worst teams in the country was not something we had on the agenda for this game, but life is full of surprises!

But then Iowa put together another scoring run (12-2) and this time, that lead actually held. Iowa took a 70-60 lead with eight minutes to play and kept the Eagles at arm's length for the remainder of the game, eventually pushing the lead out to 19 points with two minutes to go. The transformation in Iowa's performance came from a fairly radical makeover to Iowa's lineup. McCaffery sat three starters -- Joe Toussaint, Jordan Bohannon, and Patrick McCaffery -- and replaced them with Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, and Connor McCaffery. The Ulis-Perkins-CMac-Keegan-Rebraca lineup played for over 12 minutes in the second half (from 13:05 to 0:49) and Iowa was +15 with them on the floor in that stretch. 

That lineup was more potent offensively -- but mainly because of their defense. They were able to slow down the dribble penetration that had been killing Iowa all night and force several turnovers which led to transition opportunities. Likewise, Keegan-Rebraca-CMac shored up Iowa's invisible interior defense, contesting shots and doing a better job of securing rebounds -- which also led to more transition opportunities for the Iowa offense. Credit where it's due -- Fran made a bold move in switching up the lineup like that and it absolutely paid off. Patrick McCaffery had 15 points in the game (13 in the first half), but his defensive effort was lacking for much of the game. Jordan Bohannon made an early three, but couldn't buy a basket after that, and finished 1/9 from long range for the game. As we've seen over the years, if Bohannon's threes aren't falling, it can be difficult for him to make a positive impact on the game. Toussaint was also struggling to make shots (1/5) and the length and defensive intensity of Ulis just seemed like a better fit for this game with the way it was being played. 

Aside from the porous defense in the first half, Iowa's biggest problem was that their jump shots just were not falling -- at all. Iowa shot a grisly 38% from the floor in this game (23/61) and an even more ghastly 22% (5/23) from 3-point range. They mitigated that dreadful field goal shooting by getting to the free throw line a lot. The officials rang up NC Central for 30 (!) fouls, which led to Iowa taking 41 free throws in the game; the Hawkeyes were mostly money at the charity stripe, converting 35 of those 41 tries (85%). Iowa outscored NC Central by 27 points (!) at the free throw line, which is pretty staggering. It's good to see Iowa converting free throws at such a high rate; they'll need to rely on that for points in other games when their shots aren't falling. Of the two major problems Iowa had in the game (bad defense, bad 3-point shooting), the bad defense seems like the more concerning issue long-term. Iowa probably won't shoot 22% from behind the arc in too many games this season. 

Keegan Murray finished with an absolutely jaw-dropping stat line: 27 points, 21 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists. He was absolutely incandescent in this game, somehow surpassing his efforts in the first two games of the season. But, again, we're going to talk more about his performance over here. Iowa's second leading scorer was Patrick McCaffery, who had 15 points on 4/11 shooting (1/4 from deep, 6/6 at the FT line). Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins gave Iowa a much-needed spark off the bench as well. Ulis finished with 12 points (on 2/5 shooting, but 7/8 at the FT line), along with four assists, three rebounds, and a steal in 22 minutes of action. Perkins had 13 points (on 4/7 shooting, plus 3/4 at the FT line), three steals, two rebounds, and an assist. They also made over half of Iowa's 3-pointers in the game; Perkins was 2/2 from deep and Ulis was 1/1; the rest of the Iowa team was 2/20 from deep. Rebraca ended the night with 8 points and 6 rebounds, with all but two rebounds of that production coming in the second half. 

There are several things to take away from that game for Iowa, both good and bad. On the good side of the ledger: Keegan Murray is even more incredible than we thought, and Ulis and Perkins provided some much-needed sparks off the bench. On the bad side of the ledger: the defense has some big question marks and the offense can look pretty dicey when the 3-pointers aren't falling. There's plenty for Iowa to work on after this effort, but it's always better to do so after a victory (especially since a loss in this game would have likely been a scarlet letter on Iowa's resume all season long). And while it was much harder than expected, a victory was precisely what Iowa got out of this game in the end. Whew. 

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