By Adam Jacobi on February 2, 2021 at 9:50 pm
Joe Toussaint strokes a jumper over Rocket Watts
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the wins Iowa will celebrate this season, that... sure was one of them. Iowa trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half and let the moribund Spartans hang around for all 40 minutes, eventually prevailing 84-78. Luka Garza, whom you may have heard of, finally got his first win over Sparty as he scored a game-high 27 points and added 12 rebounds. 

Better yet, the 27-point performance pushed Garza over 2,000 career points, truly rarified air for the monstrous center but a well-deserved milestone all the same. Garza is well on pace to eclipse Roy Marble's incredible 2,116 career mark at Iowa and take his place atop the mountain by the end of the regular season. Hell yeah. 

As the game started, the big news was CJ Fredrick's return to the starting lineup — his absence had been noticeable in Iowa's two-game skid. Can skids be two games? One is out of the question. Maybe it's a dip. A two-game dip. Anyway, Fredrick indeed started, but stayed on the bench for most of the first half (and most of the game) while the bench mob went to work.

Indeed, despite Garzilla's usual gaudy stats, this was Iowa's best bench game of the season — and plenty of that had to do with Fran McCaffery trusting his reserve units for long stretches of play.

Jack Nunge matched a season-high 23 minutes off the bench, and responded with 12 points on 4-5 shooting (making both three-point tries), 8 rebounds and some truly inspired post defense. He wasn't credited with a block but I could swear there was one in there. I'm also not going to go back and check, so this is more of a me-fact. Anyway, he was a team-high +15 for his time on the court, and suffice it to say Iowa would have had much more difficulty clawing back into the game without him.

Joe Toussaint also cracked the 20-minute mark, adding 10 points and a team-high 6 assists in the win. Toussaint's jumper continues to improve, and he has a natural rapport with young guys like Patrick McCaffery (15 minutes, 4 points, 4 rebounds) that Iowa fans will come to appreciate in the next few years. Did you know Patrick told his dad to recruit Toussaint? Because you'll probably start hearing that every game once they're both starting. Aaron White was locked in the gym once!

Tony Perkins had 13 energetic minutes off the bench. Ahron Ulis got on the court at the end of the first half and made a hustle play to secure two points at the end of the half (those came in handy, didn't they?). And of course, supersub Keegan Murray remained a consistent, smart, efficient presence on the court in his own 15 minutes. 

We know already that Fran McCaffery isn't going to go 11-deep very often. But we also know that he uses his bench to create favorable matchups every bit as much as he uses it to rest starters. And with Fredrick, Connor McCaffery and even Jordan Bohannon looking iffy at times, Fran had no qualms about giving his bench 90 minutes of game time. Against Michigan State. A team Iowa hadn't beaten since 2016, and whom Iowa really needed to beat today. That's confidence, and Iowa's bench has been rewarding that confidence all season long.

That all said, this game wasn't without several uh-oh moments. Sparty hit their first SIX three-pointers of the game, which is slightly better than the 29% they had been making in Big Ten play prior to tipoff. Iowa kept its foot on the gas pedal and pushed it to a 48-43 lead at the break, but Iowa could never push the game to double digits, and MSU even had a shot to tie the game with under 30 seconds left. 

Of course, whenever the recap mentions a shot to tie and not, y'know, a tie, what comes next is invariably a missed shot, and Joshua Langford's running jumper rattled in and out before being corralled by Garza. Bohannon would make all four of his free throws in the last 15 seconds of the game, and that was that. 

Usually, when most of a team's starters have an off day against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, that's a wrap right there. Obviously, as MSU spirals down to 2-7 in this hellacious Big Ten, this is a diminished Sparty team. But it's still one with dangerous talent up and down the roster, as we saw on Tuesday night, one filled with guys who nearly any program would love to have on their team. They even have cool names. Rocket Watts sounds like a guy who was first-team all-ABA in 1977.

And Iowa just beat them by featuring a bunch of bench players who never got a sniff in recruiting from Tom Izzo. Also, Iowa has cool names too. Joe Toussaint: cool name. Take that, Rocket.

It was tough, it was ugly, the free throw shooting was gross until it wasn't — and Iowa still got the most precious thing in this year's Big Ten: a W.

Onward, gentlemen. There's still a conference yet to be won.


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