Iowa finally won a Big Ten game last week, avoiding what would have been the program’s worst start in conference play since Fran McCaffery’s debut season.
But what may have been most impressive is the way the Hawkeyes did it. They fell behind Illinois on the road by 20 points in the first half, rallied to send the game to overtime, then scored the first 10 points of the extra period to win, 104-97. Psychologically, it was better than if they had just taken control from the beginning and continued on to win.
It demonstrated that despite starting 0-5 in the Big Ten and imperiling their chances of making any sort of postseason tournament, the Hawkeyes have not lost their resolve to succeed. They didn’t quit when it would have been really easy to do so.
In spite of a sizable number of doubters, many of whom have voiced their displeasure on social media, this team still is intent on making something of this season.
“People who don’t think we want to win are just misinformed,’’ sophomore forward Tyler Cook said following the victory. “Obviously, there’s things that we haven’t done in the past that we needed to do to win, but every single guy in our locker room wants to win.’’
In fact, you got the feeling the social media barbs may have even played a role in sparking the third largest comeback in Iowa history.
“We don’t really listen to what everyone says, like ‘You’re trash. You’re not doing anything. You’re under-performing,’’’ added backup center Ryan Kriener, who made some key plays in the second half. “What we do is we just go back to work, and it’s nice to see some of that work paying off. We’re finally figuring some stuff out.’’
It’s the sort of milestone victory that could prompt an abrupt turnaround in the Hawkeyes’ season.
It helps that four of the next five games — starting with a Wednesday night visit to Rutgers — are against teams currently in the lower half of the Big Ten standings.
The Hawkeyes need to make some headway in those games because the schedule gets tough again in February with consecutive games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. Two of those three games will be on the road.
Garza the gamer: The Illinois game provided our best glimpse yet of the warrior mentality of a center who is going to be part of the Iowa program for a few years to come.
When push came to shove and more shoves, Luka Garza rose to the occasion. He scored 17 of his 19 points after halftime, including 10 in the last 4½ minutes of regulation plus a monstrous 3-point play in overtime. The 6-foot-11 freshman has a competitive fire and positivity of purpose that is infectious.
“He was huge,’’ Cook said. “He’s a guy that came alive for us in the second half. We needed him. He came in and made huge plays, got huge rebounds, a big and-one, just playing physical and doing what he does best.’’
Garza made a few moves to the basket late in the game that some observers likened to things that Frank Kaminsky did during his glory days at Wisconsin. It’s premature to put Garza in that category, but there are similarities in his skill set and fiery competitive instincts to those of Kaminsky.
Lots of points: The 104 points scored by the Hawkeyes at Illinois are the most by an Iowa team in a Big Ten game since they put up 116 against Northwestern in 1995.
The Hawkeyes have topped 104 points in conference play only 12 times through the years and half of those took place during the record-shattering 1969-70 season.
Moving up: With five 3-point field goals against Illinois, sophomore guard Jordan Bohannon already is up to ninth on Iowa’s career list with 141.
Dean Oliver is eighth at 161. If Bohannon stays healthy, he could break Jeff Horner’s career record of 262 before the end of his junior year.
Using Uhl: Dom Uhl, the only scholarship senior on the Iowa roster, has scored only three points all season and has played just 35 minutes, mostly in mop-up situations. As a result, it seems unlikely he will even play when the Hawkeyes play at Rutgers, less than an hour from where Uhl played his high school career.
Uhl always has gotten fired up to play against Rutgers and had two of the best games of his career at home against the Scarlet Knights. His averages of 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds against Rutgers are well above his career averages of 3.6 and 2.7.
Despite Uhl’s lack of playing time, McCaffery said last week he still believes the 6-9 senior could be a factor this season.
“I’d say yes. He’s been ready, he’s stayed ready,’’ McCaffery said. “If you look at our situation defensively, maybe he could help with his length, with his speed. So that’s a possibility.’’