By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – To call any Big Ten opener a must win is kind of silly, especially one played on the second day of December.
But there was a sense of urgency heading into the Iowa men’s basketball team’s conference opener against Penn State on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes were coming off a 79-55 beat-down at Virginia Tech on Wednesday and had lost three of the last four games.
Saturday’s game was also the start of a difficult three-game stretch over five days that includes back-to-back road games at Indiana on Monday and at Iowa State on Thursday.
So if Saturday’s game wasn’t a must-win, it certainly was a game that Iowa couldn’t afford to lose.
But that’s what happened as the Nittany Lions, behind 6-foot-5 sophomore point guard Tony Carr, escaped with a 77-73 victory, dropping Iowa’s record to 4-4 overall.
Carr scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half and made two critical free throws with 9.2 seconds remaining to help Penn State win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first time since 2001 and for just the fourth time in 21 games. Carr also dished out nine assists and had just two turnovers while playing 39 minutes.
His performance on both ends of the floor was the latest example of how the absence of a true point guard continues to haunt the Iowa basketball team and the program as a whole.
“What I am really most proud of is that sometimes in the past when guys have difficult first halves they don’t have great second halves, either, especially when they’re freshmen or a sophomore,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. “I thought he stuck with game plan and trusted his teammates. He had nine assists and two turnovers. That’s an outstanding assists to turnover ratio, and when he had to make big shots for us, he did.”
Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon struggled against Carr’s size and quickness and was held to just eight points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field. Bohannon also committed three of Iowa’s 18 turnovers, but his inability to get open looks is what really doomed Iowa on offense.
“They’re chasing up on him,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “We’ve got to screen more for him whether we’re running sets or running motion. We’ve got to free him up, no question about that. He’s got to get more shots.
“We’re a team that’s bigger. So we typically want to throw it in. But (Jordan) has got to get more than six shots.”
The problem for the 6-0 Bohannon is that he is the closest Iowa has to a point guard, but he isn’t a true point in terms of being able to break down defenses and putting pressure on the ball.
Carr, on the other hand, is a true point guard and it showed on Saturday, especially in the second half. He made three of his four 3-point baskets in the second half and repeatedly drove to the basket and found teammates for easy looks.
“You know he was going to come back in the second half,” McCaffery said of Carr. “He’s going to have it a lot. I thought at times we guarded him well and at times we didn’t.”
Point guard was a concern for Iowa heading into the season, but now the situation is even worse since former backup point guard Christian Williams announced in late October that he would transfer after the first semester.
Freshman guard Connor McCaffery also has been battling the effects of mononucleosis and hasn't played in the regular season. Fran McCaffery's son could provide some relief for Bohannon at point guard, but it's uncertain when Connor McCaffery will return and he also isn't a true point guard.
Carr was among four Penn State players who scored in double figures on Saturday. Sophomore forward Lamar Stevens led the Nittany Lions with 22 points. He also made a basket to expand Penn State's lead to 71-67 with 41.3 seconds remaining and two free throws with 4.3 seconds left to play.
Penn State made three times as many 3-point shots as Iowa, finishing 12-of-23 from behind the arc, while the Hawkeyes finished 4-of-12 from 3-point range.
That’s a difference of 24 points.
“When a team makes 12 threes you’re going to have a hard time beating them,” McCaffery said.
Sophomore forward Tyler Cook led three Iowa players in double figures with 23 points. He also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, but it was his five turnovers and two missed free throws late in the second half that Cook kept mentioning after the game.
“Some guys, including myself, turned the ball over too much,” Cook said. “We weren’t aggressive enough offensively at times in getting the right guys the right looks and stuff like that.”
Iowa never led in the game, but pulled to within two points on three occasions late in the second half, including when Carr made the two free throws with 9.2 seconds remaining.
McCaffery has been familiar with Carr for a while after trying to recruit him to Iowa. They both are from Philadelphia and McCaffery offered Carr a scholarship during Carr’s junior year of high school.
But Carr chose to stay closer to home and that decision greatly impacted Saturday’s game.
Penn State bolted to a 14-4 lead and Iowa was forced to play catch up for the rest of the game.
Cook and 6-9 sophomore reserve Ryan Kriener were about the only bright spots for Iowa on offense in the first half, and Kriener earned that distinction despite only playing the final two minutes of the half.
Cook scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds in the first half, while Kriener figured in Iowa’s final two baskets of the first half. He made a nifty assist to Nicholas Baer for a layup with 1:19 remaining and then grabbed an offensive rebound and made a basket in the paint with eight seconds left, trimming the deficit to 39-34, which was the halftime score.
The Iowa offense was stagnant and sloppy in the first half, committing nine turnovers and dishing out just five assists.
Baer was inserted into the starting lineup in hopes of providing a spark, but the 6-7 forward only scored four points in 26 minutes.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Moss scored 13 points for Iowa, while 6-8 sophomore forward came off the bench to score 10 points and grab five rebounds.
Iowa had a 19-0 advantage in bench points, but that still wasn't enough to win.
Iowa was in a similar situation at this stage last season with a 3-5 record after eight games. The team then rebounded to win five games in a row and would go on to finish 19-15 overall, but also failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously, it’s early December so there is still a lot of basketball that we’re going to play,” Baer said. “But at the same time, there’s got to be a sense of urgency to improve. We know we’re not playing our best basketball right now and we’re going to have to start doing it.”