IOWA CITY — The Iowa basketball team demonstrated again Sunday that it does not live by Peter Jok alone.
But when Jok is clicking along with his youthful teammates, as he was Sunday, the Hawkeyes have become a handful for just about any opponent.
Iowa built a sizable lead Sunday without much help from Jok, then the senior leader put together another of his epic scoring sprees to open the second half and help the Hawkeyes romp to a 90-79 victory over Penn State in the final regular-season game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The win was the fourth straight for the Hawkeyes (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten) and it ensures them of getting the No. 7 seed in this week’s Big Ten Tournament. They open play Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. against the No. 10 seed, Indiana, after Michigan routed Nebraska on Sunday night in Lincoln. The game will be televised by ESPN2.
They likely need to win a couple of games in D.C. to have a realistic shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but Iowa coach Fran McCaffery came away from Sunday’s win feeling his team is worthy of a berth in the Big Dance.
“I think we deserve to be in,’’ he said. “But I think what you have to do is not focus on thinking about it and talking about it.
“We can do what we have to do to get in. We’ve got to win the next game. Then we’ve got to win the game after that. Got to win the game after that. If you win the one after that, you're automatically in.’’
Jok, who made 4 of 5 3-point field goal attempts on Senior Day and finished with 21 points, said it’s his job to keep his young teammates honed in on the next game and not contemplate where they stand with the NCAA selection committee.
“We just need to keep winning,’’ he said. “There is no better time to click than in March. I think we’re clicking at the right time.’’
The Hawkeyes seized control of Sunday’s game with a stretch in which they held Penn State scoreless for nearly seven minutes late in the first half and scored 14 straight points to open a 38-25 lead.
Jok wasn’t on the court for any of it. The 6-foot-6 senior picked up two quick fouls and went to the bench for most of the half. The only time he played in the last 15 minutes, 25 seconds of the half was when he went into the game to shoot two free throws on a technical foul with 1:02 remaining.
With a 47-36 halftime cushion, McCaffery decided to get his star more heavily involved in the second half. Jok responded by scoring 16 of Iowa’s first 23 points in the half, a sequence that included all four of his 3-pointers. All but one of his points came after halftime.
“That’s what we expect out of Pete and he’s played to that standard all year,’’ sophomore Nicholas Baer said.
The Hawkeyes’ lead eventually ballooned to 27 (81-54) before they went into celebration mode, allowing the Nittany Lions to reduce the final margin to a more respectable level.
It was the fifth straight loss for Penn State (14-17, 6-12 Big Ten), which got 25 points from Josh Reaves and 17 points and 12 rebounds from freshman Mike Watkins.
Along with Jok’s scoring, Baer had perhaps the best game of his Iowa career. The former Bettendorf star collected a career-best 20 points and 10 rebounds, and was a perfect 4 for 4 from 3-point range. He is 18 for 31 in the past six games.
“Baer is the heart of this team,’’ Jok said. “He’s been a great leader. He’s more of the communication leader and I’m more of the action leader. But he’s the heart of this team. He’s a great energy guy and he doesn’t care if he scores or not. He’s always going to do what’s best for the team.’’
Cordell Pemsl added 14 points and Tyler Cook and Jordan Bohannon netted 11 apiece. Cook had his second double-double in the past three games as he added 10 rebounds.
McCaffery was most impressed with the way his players moved the ball on offense — they had 24 assists on 31 field goals — and took care of business following an emotional 59-57 road victory Thursday night at No. 22 Wisconsin.
“It would have been easy after the win at Wisconsin, the way we won, to be a little fat-headed today,’’ he said. “That was not an easy game for our guys today. I think that's what makes me so proud right now.’’
Jok wasn’t the only senior who was honored prior to Sunday’s game. In fact, McCaffery inserted fifth-year man Dale Jones into the starting lineup despite the fact that the injury-plagued junior college transfer from Waterloo had played only 11 minutes all season and had not scored a point.
“It was great feeling after what I’ve been through just to be in the starting lineup and hear my name called and hear the crowd erupt,’’ said Jones, who missed most of last season with a knee injury and broke his hand early this season. “It felt like home.’’
He looked right at home as he swished in a 3-pointer for Iowa’s first points.
“That was an unbelievable feeling for me to see,’’ McCaffery said. “I just knew he was going to make one. I mean, he's just too good a shooter. I thought he was going to make the last one, I really did. He shot it from, like, 40 feet.’’