It wasn’t the beat-down that many expected the Iowa men’s basketball team to unleash on lowly Rutgers.
But Fran McCaffery wasn’t complaining after Thursday’s 90-76 victory in Piscataway, N.J., because he knows that any win against a Big Ten opponent is a worthy accomplishment.
“We’ll take it,” McCaffery said on his Learfield post-game radio show. “We knew they were going to fight.”
The ninth-ranked Hawkeyes entered Thursday’s game as a 22-point favorite against a Rutgers team that was coming off a 107-57 beat-down against Purdue on Monday at home. Rutgers had lost it previous five games by at least 22 points.
“I would say this probably to a man the players on Rutgers had not had a game like they had Monday night in their lives,” McCaffery said of the Purdue loss. “And they’re all good players. They’re all legitimate high-major players. They’re athletic. They have pride. And they have a terrific coach and a very experienced staff.
“You knew they were going to come out and execute and they executed their offense extremely well. We were not locked in defensively, partly because of the way they executed their offense.”
Iowa improved to 6-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since the 1986-87 season and 15-3 overall, while Rutgers fell to 0-7 in the conference and 6-14 overall. The Hawkeyes have won eight games in a row and 12 consecutive Big Ten regular-season games dating back to last season.
Junior guard Peter Jok led four Iowa players in double figures with a career-high 29 points, including 19 in the first half. Jarrod Uthoff and Anthony Clemmons both scored 20 points and senior center Adam Woodbury recorded a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
It marked the first time that Iowa has had three players score at least 20 points in a game since Dec. 16, 2000 against Missouri.
The Hawkeyes needed their offense to be effective because Rutgers shredded Iowa’s defense, especially in the first half, by using back-door cuts and by scoring in the paint.
The game showed early signs of being yet another Rutgers beat-down as Jok bolted to an 8-0 lead by himself. The lead swelled to 15-4 before the Scarlet Knights showed they had a pulse.
Rutgers outscored Iowa 12-2 during a 4-minute stretch in the first half. Omari Grier capped the run by making a basket that trimmed the deficit to 17-16 with 9 minutes, 48 seconds left in the first half.
The Scarlet Knight tied the score at 24-24 on a basket by Bishop Daniels with 7:47 left in the first half. Rutgers finally took the lead at 30-29 on a basket by Mike Williams with 4:24 left before halftime.
Iowa then closed the first half on a 16-7 scoring run and led 45-37 at halftime.
Rutgers narrowed the gap to four points at 50-46 early in the second half, but didn’t get any closer the rest of the way. Uthoff made a 3-point basket to expand Iowa’s lead to 53-46 with 17:14 left to play.
The 49 points that Jok and Clemmons combined to score helped to compensate for senior point guard Mike Gesell being held scoreless. Gesell still founds ways to be effective, including dishing out nine assists on a night when he was less than 100 percent physically.
“Mike was not himself tonight,” McCaffery said. “He has little bit of a hamstring pull and he tweaked his ankle a little bit. And that’s a tough kid to still go out and get nine assists and really do a great job of handling the press late.”
McCaffery also praised his bench for its contributions on a night when Iowa needed some depth.
“It was ridiculously hot in this building,” McCaffery said. “I’ve never coached in a building this hot. We were really liberal going to our bench trying to keep fresh bodies out bodies, fresh legs out there as much as we could.
“I thought the energy level that Ahmad Wagner, Nicholas Baer and Dom Uhl provided was really good.”
The 7-1 Woodbury only played seven minutes in the first half after picking up two early fouls. But he had a huge impact in the second half on both ends of the floor.
“In that stretch, the way he orchestrated our defense from the middle of the zone and got all those traffic rebounds and limited them to one (shot) and outlet the ball so we had some transition opportunities,” McCaffery said of Woodbury. “He made a couple big-time moves and scored the ball. I just couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Iowa continued its torrid pace from 3-point range, making 11-of-29 3-point baskets. Jok was 5-of-6 from 3-point range, while Uthoff made four of his six attempts.
Uthoff also surpassed the 1,000-point plateau for his career in Thursday’s game.
Jok has made at least three 3-point baskets in eight games this season. He has combined to make 12 3-point baskets in the last three games.
“He’s got an uncanny ability to get open,” McCaffery said of the 6-6 Jok. “They know who he is and they were guarding him, He’s always open. He moves without it. He’s crafty. And he doesn’t need a lot of time. And he’s shooting the deep ball as well as he ever has.”
The competition should improve on Sunday when Iowa faces Purdue at noon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Boilermakers, who have on the Big Ten’s best frontlines, will look to avenge a 70-63 loss to Iowa on Jan. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind.
“It’s going to take everything we have,” McCaffery said.