By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – You had to realize there would be games like this for the Iowa men’s basketball team, games in which the new-look Hawkeyes perform poorly on both ends of the floor and struggle to win.
You probably just didn’t think that it would happen against a massive underdog like North Carolina Central.
But that was the case on Tuesday as Iowa defeated the Eagles 86-69 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, thanks to another spectacular performance from sophomore forward Keegan Murray, and thanks to the Iowa bench, and more specifically sophomore guards Tony Perkins and Ahron Ulis, both of whom provided a much-needed spark with 13 and 12 points, respectively, and with their solid defense.
“They’re scrappy and they gave us their best shot today, and we answered the call,” Keegan Murray said of the Eagles. “I just think it was a good win overall for our team. We fought adversity early on in the season and that’s what you need to do to be a good team.”
Much of the focus was on sixth-year senior guard Jordan Bohannon heading into the game as he needed to make two 3-point baskets to become the Big Ten’s all-time leader in made threes.
Bohannon made a trey early in the first half, but then he missed eight consecutive shots and spent extended minutes on the bench with Perkins performing well.
Starting point guard Joe Toussaint also spent long stretches on the bench in both halves as Fran McCaffery turned to Perkins and backup point guard Ahron Ulis for help in the backcourt.
Bohannon and Toussaint both went to the bench with just over 13 minutes left in the second half and didn’t return.
Starting forward Patrick McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, also went to the bench at the 13:05 mark of the second half and didn’t return, although, Fran McCaffery said afterwards that Patrick had a sore leg.
Keegan Murray, a former Cedar Rapids Prairie graduate, and the son of former Iowa basketball player Kenyon Murray, has combined to score 76 points in three games this season. He is also the first player from a major college to have at least 27 points, 21 rebounds a four blocks in a game since former Kansas State star Michael Beasley did it against Sacramento State in 2007.
Murray is also the first Hawkeye to have at least 20 rebounds in a game since Greg Brunner had 23 against Minnesota in 2006.
Murray’s stat line was reminiscent of what former Hawkeye and 2021 National Player of the Year Luka Garza did on a regular basis in each of the past two seasons.
“The thing about it is he doesn’t really hunt shots,” Fran McCaffery said of Keegan Murray. “I thought he took one bad shot tonight. Your leading scorer has the green light to take more than one bad shot basically. But he took one.
“And he kind of gets them a little bit here and then all of the sudden you look down and he’s got 27. It’s not like we ran a ton of stuff for him. We ran some stuff, but he just kind of gets it and the guys are unselfish and they find him.”
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Keegan Murray knew that he had to perform at a high level with starting forward Filip Rebraca in early foul trouble, and with his twin brother, sophomore forward Kris Murray, out with an undisclosed illness that isn’t Covid related.
Their absences hurt Iowa from a size standpoint, and it forced the players to make some adjustments as Keegan Murray did so brilliantly on both ends.
“Obviously, we got a little small in the first half, and obviously with basketball, you’ve just got to adapt and overcome, and obviously, you’re going to have obstacles on the court that you just have to overcome and fight adversity,” Keegan Murray said.
Bohannon missing on nine of 10 field-attempts would qualify as adversity, but the 6-foot-4 Perkins was more than ready and able to pick up the slack.
Asked if he expected to play as much as did in Tuesday’s game, which was nearly 20 minutes, Perkins said:
“Honestly, not really, but once he called my name I was ready to go and I was like, I’m in, so I’ve got to produce.”
Fran McCaffery obviously liked what Perkins and Ulis brought on both ends, and with Bohannon struggling to make shots, and with Toussaint also struggling, it made sense to play Perkins and Ulis.
Perkins and Ulis spend a lot of time together on and off the court as roommates and as the backup guards.
“We also actually workout together, we live together, so we always talk before the game,” Perkins said. “Like we’ve got to do this and I need this from you and you need this from me. We just talk on and off the court.”
Perkins made both of his shots from 3-point range, including one that expanded Iowa’s lead to 47-40 with under two minutes remaining before halftime.
Perkins scored nine points in the first half, while Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery scored 14 and 13 points, respectively, in the first half.
Ulis also played more than nine minutes off the bench in the first half as he basically split time with Toussaint.
But then Fran McCaffery stuck with his two backup guards down the stretch in the second half and it paid dividends.
“Normally, I would go get them but they seem to not tire,” Fran McCaffery said. “Typically, when you’re pressing and guarding man-t0-man and sending everybody to the glass, it wears you down. But they didn’t seem to get tired and they seemed to be connected.”
And while Perkins provided a spark offensively, he credits his defense, which including having three steals. for getting him on track in Tuesday’s game.
“It all came from defense,” Perkins said. “The energy I brought on defense led us to get fastbreak points and allowed me to get open shots and it just all flowed though the defensive end.”
Iowa led by 15 points with 6:24 left before halftime, but the Eagles just wouldn’t go away as they trimmed the deficit to 49-44 at halftime.
Ulis made a runner in the lane right before the halftime buzzer to give Iowa a five-point advantage at the break.
His basket was a sign of things to come in the second half.
Iowa will face Alabama State on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and Fran McCaffery seemed optimistic that Kris Murray would be able to play.