Iowa men withstand Virginia rally on the road to improve to 7-0
Joe Toussaint makes game-winning basket in final seconds
By Pat Harty
A significant step up in competition and playing on the road for the first time this season was the challenge facing the Iowa men’s basketball team on Monday at Virginia.
Iowa met the challenge in dominating fashion for about 25 minutes, and then had enough to hang on at the end for a 75-74 victory over Virginia in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Junior point guard Joe Toussaint made arguably his biggest shot of his Hawkeye career with about eight second left to play that proved to be the game winner.
“The ball was in my hands,” Toussaint said. “Go make a play.”
Senior guard Jordan Bohannon also made six three-point baskets and Iowa had multiple players that made key baskets, and key defensive stops, down the stretch.
The Hawkeyes could’ve wilted after Virginia had erased a 21-point deficit, but Toussaint and his cohorts made enough plays to escape with a victory that improved Iowa’s record to 7-0 heading into Friday’s Big Ten opener at No. 2 Purdue.
Iowa received a scare when sophomore forward Keegan Murray, the nation’s leading scorer, limped to the locker room in the second half with an apparent ankle injury.
But Murray returned just a few minutes later and helped Iowa get its first quality win of the season.
Iowa entered Monday’s game as still a mystery in some ways with having so many players in new roles, and with having defeated six inferior opponents by at least 17 points in the first games.
The concern was that Iowa might unravel against a better opponent after having not been pushed in the first six games.
But it was abundantly clear from the opening tip-off that Iowa came ready to play, and that Iowa was the better team in the first half.
Shortly after Bohannon had made his third 3-point basket, Kris Murray, who is Keegan Murray’s twin brother, made his first three that gave Iowa a 33-19 lead with 5:34 left in the first half.
Bohannon made his fourth trey with about 4 minutes left in the first half to give Iowa a 38-19 lead, and then Keegan Murray made a basket to push the lead to, 40-19.
Iowa was on pace to score over 80 points against a team that was only allowing 53 points per game.
The first half was a repeat of Iowa’s first six games in that Iowa dismantled what looked to be an inferior opponent, but this dismantling came against an ACC team that won the national title in 2019.
The current Virginia team is a far cry from the 2019 team, but it’s still Virginia, and it was playing at home, and yet, Iowa pretty much had its way in the first half.
The Cavaliers closed the first half on a 6-0 run, cutting Iowa’s lead to 44-30 at the break.
However, the 44 points scored by Iowa in the first half was the most against Virginia in the Tony Bennett era, which dates back to 2009.
Iowa repeatedly found open looks against Virginia’s defense, and converted in many cases, from 3-point range, and in the paint.
And though Virginia won the second half, Iowa rose to the occasion with the game on the line, and with Toussaint playing a key role at point guard.
The biggest question about Toussaint on offense is his ability to make perimeter shots, but for at least one game on a pretty big stage, the Bronx, New York native met the challenge.
Toussaint worked hard in the offseason to improve his perimeter shot, and his work paid dividends in Monday’s game.
He is starting at point guard for the first time in his career, and Bohannon is now starting at shooting guard after having been the starting point guard as a freshman, sophomore and junior.
Bohannon, a sixth-year senior, and the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals, agreed to switch to shooting guard during the offseason to make room for Toussaint in the starting lineup.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery also embraced the switch in the backcourt and Toussaint thanked his head coach after Monday’s victory for believing in him.
“I’ve been waiting for this for three years,” Toussaint said on the Learfield post-game radio show. “I’m blessed to be in this position and I’m thankful for Fran putting the ball in my hands in the last seconds to go make a play.”
Every player that Fran McCaffery used in Monday’s game contributed in some way, either by making a key basket, or a key defensive stop, or a key pass that led to a basket.
And Iowa needed everyone’s contribution to withstand a spirited rally by a Virginia squad that is well coached and rich in tradition.
Sophomore forward Patrick McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, had a much-needed block in the closing seconds that sealed the win. Patrick used his lanky, 6-foot-9 frame to protect the basket when Virginia had a decent look near the rim.
Junior forward Filip Rebraca also made some key baskets in the second and was his usual force on the boards. The 24-year old transfer from North Dakota missed three free throws in the second half, but ultimately, it didn’t matter because Iowa made enough plays to prevail.
“Everybody I put in was real good,” Fran McCaffery said. “Everybody that I played in this game produced. And that’s the kind of team we have.”
Iowa had to replace four of its top players from last season, including 2021 National Player of the Year Luka Garza, who is Iowa’s all-time leading scorer.
It was hard to tell in the first six games how much the loss of Garza and the other players would affect the team.
But Toussaint and his teammates grew up a lot on Monday.
They went to a hostile environment with a roster filled with numerous players in new roles, and they survived.
“We had to fight,” Fran McCaffery said. “At some point, we knew there would be adversity. And how do you handle adversity in the course of a game? You don’t want to talk about it later. You want to deal with it in the present and that’s what they did, and I’m so happy for them.”