IOWA CITY — Iowa coach Fran McCaffery insisted that his team did not suffer from any sort of hangover from that excruciating and exhausting double-overtime loss to Nebraska on Thursday night. He doesn’t believe in such things. Doesn’t happen, he said.
Still, maybe he should have given his guys a little taste of lemon and tomato juice and maybe some extra fluids before they took the court Sunday against Rutgers.
The Hawkeyes staggered out of the blocks and trailed by nine points in the middle of the second half before finally doing enough to escape the ignominy of being the first team ever to lose a Big Ten game to the Scarlet Knights. They awakened in the final 13 minutes to claim a 68-62 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Turns out they didn’t need a squirt of lemon or a sip of juice. All it took was a tall glass of Dom Uhl.
The junior forward, who has slid further and further down the bench in the past few weeks, played 23 minutes, scored a season-high 10 points, grabbed a season-high eight rebounds and added a career-high five blocked shots to help the Hawkeyes come out on top.
“He was the man today,’’ McCaffery said. “He was the difference in the game without question. Dom Uhl. I was so proud of him.’’
The soft-spoken Uhl spent his last two years of high school in New Jersey, just a half hour down the turnpike from Rutgers, and he admitted that he gets a little more fired up when playing the Scarlet Knights. But mostly, he said he’s just tried to stay positive and keep working despite playing only 30 minutes in the first three games of the Big Ten season.
“It always feels good to play well and know your work in the gym paid off …’’ Uhl said. “Today was my game, I guess.’’
Peter Jok added 18 points and 11 rebounds for Iowa (10-7, 2-2 Big Ten) and Jordan Bohannon notched a career best with eight assists, but it was clear in the first half that the Hawkeyes were a bit sluggish. Their coach said it had nothing to do with what happened at Nebraska.
“Hangover from what?’’ McCaffery said. “We lost. So there should never be a hangover. You should be hungry and ready to get back to work and ready to fight. … I thought we were ready. I thought Rutgers was ready, too.’’
A few of his players, however, admitted there might have been some residue from their most grueling game of the season, both physically and emotionally.
“I guess so. It was a pretty quick transition,’’ Bohannon said. “We don’t want to use that as an excuse. … I felt like once we got back into the rhythm of things and got our offensive flow back a little bit, we started doing what we’re capable of.’’
Rutgers, which is clearly improved under first-year coach Steve Pikiell, dropped to 0-4 in the Big Ten (11-6 overall) and is now 0-21 in conference road games since joining the league.
But there were times very deep into Sunday’s contest when it looked as though the Scarlet Knights might be ready to break through.
They led through much of the first half and even after Iowa surged into a brief 8-point lead, the visitors scored the last eight points of the half to tie it.
Led by junior forward Deshawn Freeman, they dominated the early stages of the second half and led by as much as nine (51-42) before the Hawkeyes decided to apply the clamps at the defensive end.
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The Knights missed 13 of their next 14 shots, mixed in four turnovers and even missed a pair of free throws as the Hawkeyes clawed their way back.
They finally tied the score at 55-55 when Cordell Pemsl converted a 3-point play off a feed from Bohannon and that seemed to open the floodgates a little. Jok made a diving steal that resulted in a layup for Bohannon and a Bohannon steal led to a dunk for Jok.
“Instead of rolling over we came out as a collective unit and decided to get stops that would lead to easy buckets,’’ Pemsl said.
But Rutgers didn’t exactly roll over either.
With Iowa ahead 61-59 with a little more than a minute remaining, Freeman snared an offensive rebound and went up for what would have been a game-tying basket. Uhl was there to swat it away.
Nicholas Baer flipped in a 12-foot jumper at the other end and Uhl, Bohannon and Jok combined to make five of six free throws in the final minute to finish it off.
Freeman finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds and five steals, and the Knights also outrebounded Iowa 44-36 and forced 18 turnovers.
It’s the closest they have ever come to winning a Big Ten road game — they lost by seven at Purdue two years ago — and Pikiell saw signs that his team is getting better. This wasn’t strictly a case of Iowa playing badly.
“We’ve strung together some good halves and today we probably played 34 minutes of really good basketball,’’ Pikiell said. “But you have to play 40 good minutes.’’