The circumstances were stacked against the depleted Iowa men’s basketball team against Minnesota on Sunday, and yet, Luka Garza and his cohorts still found a way to prevail, and having confidence with the game on the line was a key factor.
Iowa used a late 11-0 scoring run to erase an eight-point deficit and then hung on for a much-needed 58-55 victory at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Minnesota center Daniel Oturu missed the front end of a one-on-one with 2.9 seconds remaining, and with Iowa clinging to a 57-55 lead.
Iowa guard Connor McCaffery then made one of two free throws to complete the improbable comeback.
"I don't in my career know if I've ever been more proud of a group to overcome kind of what we did today," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said on the Learfield post-game radio show. "Heavy foul trouble, fatigue, down eight with five minutes to go on the road and the place is just rocking.
"They stayed the course, an incredible belief that we were going to win the game."
The 6-foot-11 Garza helped to fuel that belief during a late timeout, according to Fran McCaffery.
"He said, 'we are winning this game,"' Fran McCaffery said. "He not only knew it, he verbalized it. There was never any panic."
Iowa improved to 18-8 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten, and won for just the second time on the road in the Big Ten this season.
Garza continued his spectacular season by scoring 24 points and grabbing eight rebounds despite being in foul trouble throughout the game.
Iowa also played without starting guard and third leading scorer C.J. Fredrick, who is out indefinitely with an ankle injury.
Iowa needed its veteran players to step up and they all responded, especially senior forward Ryan Kriener, who replaced Fredrick in the starting lineup and contributed 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.
Senior guard Bakari Evelyn and junior forward Cordell Pemsl also provided sparks off the bench with seven and six points, respectively.
Garza was the star as usual, but it took a group effort for Iowa to prevail on Sunday, especially with Joe Wieskamp being held to just two points.
The fact that Iowa won a Big Ten road game without Fredrick, and with Wieskamp scoring just two points is a testimony to the team’s resolve and talent.
Garza made a 3-point basket that trimmed the deficit to 55-54 with less than two minutes to play.
Kriener then made a free throw to even the score at 55-55 with 1:37 remaining. Kriener missed the second free throw, but Garza deflected the ball back to Kriener to give Iowa another possession.
Evelyn then made two free throws to give Iowa a 57-55 lead with 1:15 left to play.
Iowa scored the final 11 points of the game and it was the veteran players who led the way with the game on the line.
Kriener had been held below 10 points in each of his previous six games, so it was imperative that he step up on offense to compensate for Fredrick’s absence, and he did.
Connor McCaffery also played 39 minutes and finished with seven assists and zero turnovers.
Everybody who played for Iowa made an impact and a contribution to Sunday’s victory. Riley Till only played five minutes, but he provided depth on the frontline with Garza battling foul problems.
Garza only played 28 minutes, and Iowa only made 4-of-13 shots from 3-point range, and yet, still found a way to win on the road.
“The best feeling in the world, winning on the road,” Connor McCaffery said on the Learfield post-game radio show.
Iowa had been allowing an average of about 90 points per game against Big Ten opponents on the road, but the Gophers barely scored half of that and were mostly shutout down the stretch.
“I think we really did a great job in transition,” Connor McCaffery said. “Especially in the second half we did a better job on the glass, too, because in the first half we were getting lots of stops, they were just getting offense rebounds and getting multiple looks at it.
“So that was a huge thing for us, to make sure that we limited their second-chance points and then did well in transition.”
Garza picked up his third foul on a charging call in the post with 14:17 left in the second half, and with Iowa trailing, 41-33.
The officials reviewed the tape and ruled that it was a common foul rather than a flagrant foul.
But Garza still was removed from the game and Iowa immediately forced a turnover with its full-court press, and then trimmed the deficit to 41-35 on a basket by Pemsl.
Both teams then suffered through a cold spell on offense, but Evelyn made a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to 41-38 with 11:15 remaining.
It was just Iowa’s second 3-point basket in the game at that point.
Connor McCaffery then threw a perfect bounce pass to Pemsl, who then scored to cut the lead to 41-40, but the Gophers answered with a 3-point basket by guard Marcus Carr.
He was also fouled on the play, but missed the free throw, keeping the lead at 44-40 with less than 10 minutes to play.
Garza grabbed his own miss and made a short bank shot with 8:20 remaining. He also drew a foul on Minnesota center Daniel Oturu, but missed the free throw, keeping the deficit at 44-42.
Garza then picked up his fourth foul with 7:28 remaining and had to go to the bench again with Iowa trailing 46-44.
Oturu made one of two free throws to give Minnesota a 47-44 lead, but then Connor McCaffery made a 3-point basket that evened the score at 47 with seven minutes left to play.
Minnesota then scored eight consecutive points with Garza on the bench and led 55-47 when Fran McCaffery called a timeout with 5:21 left to play.
Garza was inserted back in the game after the 8-0 run and he then made jump hook shot from the baseline to cut the lead to 55-51. He also attempted a 3-point shot that rolled around the rim and fell out with just less than three minutes to play and with Iowa trailing, 55-51.
Iowa was leading 21-18 when Garza went to the bench with his second foul with 5:18 left in the first half, and he didn’t return.
The Gophers then scored 10 consecutive points as Iowa went over four minutes without scoring with Garza on the bench.
Iowa bolted to a 10-0 lead with Garza scoring all 10 points on five baskets.
But Garza didn’t score in the final 16 minutes of the first half and that allowed Minnesota to seize the momentum and eventually the lead, which stood at 31-26 at the break.
Fouls started to become a concern for Iowa late in the first half as Garza, Pemsl and freshman point guard Joe Toussaint all had two fouls before halftime.
But as Sunday's game played on, Iowa's veteran players would rise to the occasion.
And they truly are veterans, considering Evelyn is a graduate transfer and a fifth-year senior, while Pemsl is a fourth-year junior and Connor McCaffery is a third-year sophomore.
They played with poise and passion down the stretch and refused to lose in a hostile environment.
That says a lot about this Iowa team, which has been without two starters since December, including senior point guard Jordan Bohannon, because of injuries.
Adversity has been Iowa's co-pilot this season, but the players have stayed on course, partly due to veteran leadership.
Iowa will return home to face Ohio State on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa has a 12-1 record at home this season.