IOWA CITY — With star guard Peter Jok returning to the lineup and a team coming to town that defeated them in double overtime a month ago, you figured there must have been some pretty deep strategic discussions in the Iowa locker room prior to Sunday’s game.
Or maybe not.
“We really didn’t talk about anything,’’ Jok said. “Today, we talked about the Super Bowl. We just wanted to get the win and then go watch some football.’’
It’s an indication of how loose the Hawkeyes are playing right now and it definitely showed Sunday. They played fairly even with a rough, physical Nebraska team for about 33 minutes, then crushed the Cornhuskers in the final few minutes on the way to an 81-70 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It’s the third straight win for the Hawkeyes, who quietly have crept into sixth place in the Big Ten standings at 6-5 (14-10 overall).
It wasn’t completely unlike an earlier 93-90 double-overtime loss to Nebraska except this time one team stepped up to complete the job down the stretch.
“They finished us off,’’ Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “When there was still a chance with four minutes to go, we missed an open three that would have cut it to two. They didn’t miss their open threes … At the end of the day, Iowa finished us off late. That’s what a good team does.’’
The Hawkeyes won two games while Jok was sidelined by a back injury, blending superb ball movement on offense with good intensity on defense.
They continued that Sunday even with Jok back on the court. The senior captain said it’s the most relaxed he has seen this team all season.
“Nobody’s playing like a freshman anymore,’’ Jok said. “The games I was off, we had everybody step up and I told them ‘When I get back, just keep playing like you’re playing. I want you guys to just keep playing the way you’ve been playing.’ They did that today.’’
Jok wasn’t quite his prolific, high-scoring self but he definitely played well, finishing with 12 points, five rebounds and five assists. He knocked down six straight free throws in the decisive final minutes and also had a perfect feed to Cordell Pemsl for a layup at a crucial juncture with two minutes to go.
“I am so proud of him …’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He had a couple looks, I'm sure he's frustrated they didn't go in. But I thought his shot selection was really terrific, really efficient.
“When he's out there and teams pay the attention to him that they pay, it opens things up for Jordan (Bohannon), for Brady (Ellingson), for Tyler Cook, for everybody else on our team.’’
Bohannon nailed four 3-point field goals and led Iowa with 15 points, with Cook adding 13 and Ellingson 11, all of those coming in the second half, many of them at key points.
Neither team led for more than six points until the Hawkeyes nudged their lead up to 67-59 on a pair of free throws by Christian Williams with 5 minutes, 17 seconds to go.
The Cornhuskers (10-13, 4-7 Big Ten) quickly chopped the margin to 67-64 but the Hawkeyes then closed the game with a 14-6 scoring run. Included was a 3-point dagger by Ellingson with 1:21 to go that made it 76-66.
“I think it’s just a sense of togetherness,’’ Elingson said when asked to explain the Hawkeyes’ recent surge. “We’ve been sharing the ball and we’ve been playing great defense when we need to.’’
McCaffery said he felt the biggest difference from the earlier loss to Nebraska wasn’t so much offensive execution down the stretch but defense.
“What we did was we learned a lot …’’ he said. “It was just a bad night defensively. They capitalized every time. This time we were a lot better.’’
Cornhusker guards Glynn Watson and Tai Webster combined for 57 points in that earlier meeting, but they had only 17 Sunday. Watson, who had 34 in the first game, was hampered by a groin injury and did not start Sunday, contributing only three free throws. Webster scored 14 points but he was only 6 for 18 from the field, 0 for 6 from 3-point range.
Jack McVeigh picked up some of the slack with 16 points, but the Cornhuskers shot just 31.6 percent from the field in the second half after hitting 57.7 percent in the first 20 minutes.