So it turns out that having a healthy Keegan Murray on the floor makes just a bit of a difference for this Iowa team. That's not to say the ankle injury that hampered Murray over Iowa's three games was the sole reason Iowa dropped three in a row -- the teams that handed Iowa those losses are a combined 28-3 so far this year, so they're pretty damn good in their own right -- but a hobbled version of their star player was definitely a big problem for Iowa.
A fully healthy Keegan Murray turned out to be a big problem for Utah State tonight. Murray posted a new career-high with 35 points on dazzling 13/17 shooting (2/5 from 3-point range) from the floor and 7/8 shooting at the free throw line, while also hauling down seven rebounds, forcing two steals, blocking a shot, and dishing an assist. Murray once again showed his excellence in several areas of the offense: his soft hands and smooth post moves enabled him to score easily around the rim, his speed and finishing ability made him an absolute menace in transition, and he showed some smooth (if slightly inconsistent) touch on his jumper, too. This was total package Keegan Murray and it was wonderful to behold.
This team likes to run, and it's a beautiful thing. pic.twitter.com/OaWqpoU5Tb— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) December 19, 2021
Nine days after one of their worst shooting performances ever under Fran McCaffery, Iowa roared back with one of their best shooting performances in this game -- or at least one of the best shooting performances in a half. Iowa shot 55% from the floor for the game (only 31% from 3-point range), but they were lights out in the first half: an extremely nice 69% from the floor that powered the way to a 51-point display. They main thing holding them back in that half was actually three-point shooting -- Iowa was just 3/8 from behind the arc in the first half. In comparison, they made a stunning 81% (17/21) of their 2-point attempts in the opening 20 minutes. A lot of that was Keegan Murray -- he was 9/9 on 2-point tries in the first half -- but non-Keegan Hawkeyes still shot 8/12 on twos before the break, which is pretty damn good as well.
Iowa needed those flamethrowers in the first half, because the defense took a while to show up after the finals week break. There were 14 lead changes and four ties in what was a very back-and-forth first half between the Hawkeyes and the Aggies. Both teams went on runs; Iowa led by Murray and Utah State led by Brandon Hrovath, who had 14 points and 4 rebounds on 5/10 shooting, and Justin Bean, who had 11 points and 4 assists on 5/6 shooting. For a good chunk of the half, Bean and Horvath were absolutely cutting Iowa's defense to shreds on ball-screen action and getting easy shot after easy shot, either via a wide-open three-pointer or an uncontested drive to the basket.
But eventually the Aggies started missing a few shots -- and Iowa's three-quarter court press started harassing the Aggies into a few turnovers as well -- which led to fast break opportunities for Iowa. That fueled an 8-0 run by Iowa to end the half that featured a pair of dunks by Murray and another by Filip Rebraca. That was part of Iowa's absolute domination of the paint; they outscored Utah State 32-16 in the paint in the first half. They also posted a 9-0 edge in fast break points.
Iowa maintained that torrid run out of halftime as well, using a 9-1 run after the break to open up a 16-point lead and take complete control of the game. Utah State didn't completely go away at that point; they mounted a few runs to keep the game from turning into a total rout, but they could never get the deficit below 10 points. And when their modest efforts to chip away at Iowa's lead stopped, the lead ballooned again (it got as high as 29 points with five minutes to play) and the game turned into a full-on rout at that point.
In addition to the return of some improved shooting for Iowa, perhaps the biggest positive sign from the game was on the glass. After getting dominated again and again (and again) in rebounding in recent games, Iowa out-rebounded the Aggies 15-9 in the first half and 35-23 for the game. They also controlled the offensive glass, 10-2. The Aggies aren't a particularly good offensive rebounding team (they rank 241st nationally, via KenPom), but it was still encouraging to see Iowa looking aggressive and hungry on the glass. They were attacking the glass more often than we've seen from them in the past and there was less passive waiting for a rebound to fall to them. One game does not reverse what we've seen earlier this year, but it's at least a positive step in the proper direction.
Keegan Murray's magnificent performance was the headline act for the game, but several other Hawkeyes had strong games, too. In fact, the next-best player for Iowa behind Keegan might have been... Kris Murray, who had 17 points on 6/8 shooting (3/4 from long range), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and a block in 19 minutes. We really don't want to consider where Iowa would be this season without the tremendous efforts of the Murray Twins. Patrick McCaffery also played well, with 12 points on 5/9 shooting, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Jordan Bohannon was the final Iowa player in double figures, with 11 points on 4/7 shooting (2/5 from 3-point range).
Iowa's defense had its problems again tonight -- especially early in the first half, when Utah State was just getting open shot after open shot and seemed to have an EZ Pass to the bucket, but they also did some good things as well. Iowa was able to pull away in the second half because their defense actually got stops; they forced seven turnovers in the early part of the second half, which fueled their run to a 20-point lead. Those turnovers denied the Aggies scoring opportunities of their own and often led to easy fast break points for Iowa in transition. For the game, Iowa had 11 steals and 18 points off turnovers, as well as a 20-2 edge in fast break points. Defense led to offense for Iowa a lot in this game, which was really nice to see.
This was a much-needed bounce-back effort for Iowa after a difficult stretch of games before the finals week break. Utah State isn't on par with the Big Ten teams (or Iowa State) that Iowa faced in that losing streak, but they're a several cuts above the cupcake line that Iowa mowed through in the early season. Finding a way to cruise to an easy win in this game was a very positive sign, even if there's still work to do in several areas. For now, we can just marvel at Keegan Murray and enjoy the taste of a victory again.
Top Dunks From Tonight pic.twitter.com/driVDfXlLl— Iowa Mens Basketball (@IowaHoops) December 19, 2021
NEXT: Iowa is back in action at home against Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday, December 21 (7 PM CT, BTN+).