By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It took longer maybe than what was expected, but the Iowa men’s basketball team ultimately did what was expected by defeating an undersized North Florida team on Thursday in a nearly half empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa turned a four-point halftime lead into an 83-68 victory as the Ospreys had no answer for 6-foot-11 junior center Luka Garza, who led Iowa with a game-high 29 points and 12 rebounds.
"My teammates are doing a great job of putting me in great positions," Garza said. "I think I've been doing a decent job, but there are a lot of things that I can improve on.
Iowa improved to 3-1 and will face Cal Poly on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, while North Florida fell to 4-2.
The question now is how many fans will be the in the arena because it was close to half empty for Thursday’s game.
The fact that Thursday’s game started at 6 p.m. and was televised by the Big Ten Network might have impacted the turnout, but even with those two things factored in, the crowd size was disappointing and shows that this team hasn’t captured the imagination of fans yet.
"When it's all said and done, we want to be on televison and we want people from across the country to see our program," Fran McCaffery said. "I think what our fans have proven is if we play well, they'll come out and suppot us."
It never really felt like Iowa was in trouble during Thursday’s game, but there was also little energy inside the arena due partly to the empty seats.
Iowa didn’t play very well, but still did enough to win against a team that relies heavily on making 3-points shots.
In addition to Garza’s dominance inside, freshman point guard Joe Toussaint provided some quality minutes off the bench, scoring 10 points and dishing out four assists. Toussaint’s quickness and energy caused problems for North Florida on both ends of the floor.
The Bronx, N.Y., native also drew some of the loudest ovations during Thursday’s game, although, that wasn’t say much because there weren’t a lot of loud ovations.
The atmosphere was kind of kind of dull and the only way to fix that is to keep winning when the competition gets better.
Garza has scored at least 20 points in three of Iowa's first four games, including a career-high 30 points in the 87-74 victory over Oral Roberts last Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
A small crowd was there to see a slow start for Iowa, which trailed 12-9 at the first media timeout with 14:33 left in the first half.
The Iowa players struggled early on with the speed and quickness of the North Florida players, and with their jumping ability, considering Garza had two shots blocked in the opening minutes by 6-7 Wajid Aminu.
However, Aminu went to the bench with two fouls with 12:02 left in the first half, and with his team clinging to a 14-13 lead.
Toussaint made a traditional 3-point play that started with an impressive drive to the basket with 12:02 remaining before halftime.
The Ospreys answered with a three and Iowa answered back with two free throws by junior forward Cordell Pemsl, giving the Hawkeyes an 18-17 lead with 9:34 left in the first half.
Any chance of Iowa pulling away early and burying the Ospreys was over at that point.
Fran McCaffery was less than pleased with his team’s performance and he let his players know during a timeout with 3:43 left in the first and with the score even at 28.
Iowa then closed the half on an 11-6 scoring run as Garza’s size started to cause major problems for the Ospreys, who had no player taller than 6-8.
He scored 18 points in the first half, including six of Iowa’s last nine points in the half.
Iowa led 39-35 at the break despite having made just 2-of-10 3-point baskets in the first half.
The Hawkeyes compensated for their cold perimeter shooting in the first half with a 28-16 rebounding advantage. That helped to give Iowa a 15-3 advantage in second-chance points in the first half.