By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – No disrespect to struggling Minnesota, but the opponent probably had something to do with Iowa’s defensive turnaround in the second half on Sunday.
But who cares?
Iowa was desperate for a win, and Minnesota was the opponent standing in the way.
But the Gophers hardly did any standing in the first half, and led for much of the way before halftime, including by four points at the break.
Minnesota moved the ball well on offense in the first half and that led to many open looks and to some easy baskets in the paint.
But then something changed in the second half.
Those open looks for the Gophers weren’t there anymore, nor were the open passing lanes or easy trips up the court.
Iowa picked up the intensity on defense in the second half and that flipped the switch as Iowa cruised to a 71-59 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to complete the season sweep.
Minnesota only scored 21 points in the second half after leading 38-34 at halftime.
Iowa, which had lost three of its previous four games, was without head coach Fran McCaffery for Sunday’s game due to Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
It wasn’t time to panic, but there was a sense of urgency as Iowa made its first lineup change of the season as shooting guard Tony Perkins was inserted for point guard Joe Toussaint.
Sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon shifted back to point guard, but the lineup change didn’t provide much of a spark in the first half.
But then something suddenly changed in the second half, and that something was Iowa’s effort and communication on defense.
“I thought the first half we were a little bit nervous, we kind of had nervous energy going on,” said Iowa assistant coach Billy Taylor, who served as head coach in Fran McCaffery’s absence. “But we really talked at halftime, it was about our defense. And I thought we saw in the second half more intensity, more urgency defensively, more pride in guys guarding one-on-one.”
It’s hard to say if the lineup change made that big of a difference since backup point guard Ahron Ulis played most of the second half when Iowa pulled away with Bohannon back at shooting guard.
Iowa sophomore forward Keegan Murray was spectacular on both ends, finishing with 24 points and 15 rebounds.
He also picked up his defensive intensity in the second half, and when your star player works hard on defense, it becomes contagious.
“Just the effort, obviously,” Keegan Murray said on the Big Ten Network post-game show when asked what changed on the defense in the second half. “We’ve got a lot of good teams leaders on our team, and at halftime, we kind of took it personally.
“Coach Taylor really responded to us at halftime, and we just took it to heart and got the win for him.”
A fair question is why did it take an entire half for the Iowa players to start taking defense personally?
Defense is so much about effort and commitment, and according to Keegan Murray, Iowa fell short from an effort standpoint in the first half.
It’s long overdue to get that problem fixed.
Iowa has a bad habit of performing inconsistently on defense, and it’s been costly at times this season.
As for Toussaint, he now appears to be Iowa’s third point guard, but he didn’t let that effect his effort on the court, or his enthusiasm on the bench.
He provided a spark on defense in the first half, when most of his teammates were struggling, and then he cheered from the bench in the second half as Iowa seized the momentum and ultimately pulled away to improve to 15-7 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten.
Iowa’s next game is Thursday at Maryland and Fran McCaffery is expected to return for that game.
Billy Taylor, who has 14 seasons of head coaching experience, spoke highly of Fran McCaffery on the Big Ten Network after Sunday’s win.
“I think the main this is I wanted to do well for Fran McCaffery,” Taylor said. “He’s a mentor of mine. He’s friend. He’s been an advocate for me throughout my career. A teacher.
“So more than anything, I had nervous energy just because I wanted to do well for him and for the student-athletes in that locker room.”