Short-handed Iowa uses experience and youth to survive at Rutgers
Freshman forward Keegan Murray plays huge role off the bench in 77-75 win
By Pat Harty
Rarely does anything on the road in the Big Ten come easy, and Iowa’s game at No. 14 Rutgers on Saturday was certainly no exception.
In addition to facing one of the conference’s best teams, Iowa had to overcome injuries, and had to rely on some true freshmen playing pivotal minutes against a veteran opponent, and yet, the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes still found a way to prevail 77-75 at the R.A.C in Piscataway, N.J.
Junior guard Connor McCaffery suffered a right ankle injury in the opening minutes of Saturday’s game and didn’t return until the closing seconds to throw an inbound pass, while sophomore point guard Joe Toussaint left the game in the second half after having been poked in the eye by Rutgers center Myles Johnson.
Junior swingman Joe Wieskamp and sophomore guard C.J. Fredrick also were held to eight and seven points, respectively, and were a combined 1-of-7 from 3-point range.
And yet, Iowa still found a way to win on the road in the Big Ten against a ranked opponent.
And while it might have helped from Iowa’s standpoint that the arena was mostly empty due to COVID-19 restrictions, it still takes a lot of grit and poise to win on the road in the Big Ten, especially against a ranked opponent that has tough, experienced players.
It was Iowa’s first win over a ranked opponent on the road since winning at No. 21 Wisconsin on March 2, 2017.
It only counts as one win, but it almost feels like more because winning on the road in the Big Ten is so difficult.
Saturday’s victory also helps to offset the devastating 102-95 loss at Minnesota on Christmas day when Iowa blew a seven-point lead with 45 seconds left in regulation before losing in overtime.
Senior guard Jordan Bohannon made a key basket in the final minute against Rutgers, and All-America senior center Luka Garza scored 15 of his game-high 25 points in the second half.
But it was freshman forward Keegan Murray whose all-around performance might have made the biggest difference because Iowa (9-2, 3-1 Big Ten) needed someone besides the usual go-to players to step up, and the 6-foot-8 Murray delivered on both ends of the court.
The son of former Iowa player Kenyon Murray stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and three steals while playing 22 minutes off the bench.
That stat line would look good against any opponent, but for Murray to have compiled those numbers on the road in the Big Ten against a ranked opponent takes it to another level.
“The moment he stepped onto campus you could tell he’s not a freshman,” Garza said of Keegan Murray, who graduated from Cedar Rapids Prairie before attending prep school in Florida for a one year. “He’s so confident on the court. I was just talking to him and he wasn’t nervous. It’s not surprising at all. We’re very lucky to have a guy like him on the roster.”
Murray’s only concern is helping the team win, and he’s willing and able to do about whatever it takes to accomplish that.
“Competing is my favorite thing in the world,” Keegan Murray said. “If I can do anything to make our team win, it’s satisfying. I just want to help our team win.”
Freshman point guard Ahron Ulis also rose to the occasion after being inserted in the game early in the first half. Ulis played 14 minutes and dished out four assists and had no turnovers.
Freshman shooting guard Tony Perkins also played some valuable minutes off the bench in the first half.
The fact that Ulis had no turnovers was crucial because his teammates combined for 15 turnovers, many on lazy, careless passes, especially in the first half.
And yet, Iowa still found a way to prevail on the road against a ranked Big Ten opponent.
No matter how many times you say it or write it, it never gets old.
Iowa only finished 2-7 on the road in the Big Ten last season, and that was despite being a pretty good team.
Life on the road in the Big Ten can be brutal and damaging, so when your team wins, it is cause for a brief celebration.
But then tomorrow it’ll be time to move on with another road game at Maryland looming on Thursday.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who is Connor McCaffery’s father, said after Saturday’s game that he expects both Connor McCaffery and Toussaint to be ready for the Maryland game.
The 20-game Big Ten grind never lets up, and it takes multiple players, even role players, to navigate through the rocky waters.
Keegan Murray hardly looked like a role player in Saturday’s game, though. He played with poise, confidence, and with precision and skill.
And he did it at a critical time with Connor McCaffery unavailable, and on both ends of the floor, as Fran McCaffery pointed out during his post-game zoom conference.
Fran McCaffery referred to a play in which Murray blocked a shot by 6-6 Rutgers star Ron Harper Jr.
“He was fabulous at both ends,” Fran McCaffery said of Murray. “To me, the best play he made all day was when Harper tried to take him off the dribble and he blocked his pull up jumper. He’s not mistake guy. He made one mistake coming down the stretch, and he was really disappointed in himself. And I said look, those things happen. Bohannon made one too, he’s a fifth-year senior. You just play through it, you overcome it. This is not a game where we expect you to be perfect.”
Keegan Murray can guard multiple positions, and he can score inside and out. His performance in Saturday’s game should earn him even more playing time, because to have a player with his size, versatility and poise is rare.
Murray, whose twin brother Kris Murray is also a freshman forward for Iowa, has played with confidence throughout the season.
It’s easy to forget that Saturday’s game was just Keegan Murray’s second Big Ten road game because he made it look easy.
And the more reliable scorers that surround Garza on offense, the more difficult Iowa will be to defend. Keegan Murray, with his size and versatility, helps to creates mismatches, and space for Garza to operate on offense.
“It’s nice to look down your bench and have a bunch of weapons,” said Fran McCaffery, who tied Lute Olson for second most Big Ten wins as an Iowa head coach with 92.
Garza also surpassed Aaron White for second on Iowa’s all-time scoring list, and now trails only Roy Marble.
But this game will be remembered mostly for how Keegan Murray rose to the occasion.