By Pat Harty
It was more difficult than what on paper said it should’ve been, but the Iowa men’s basketball team completed a season sweep against Nebraska on Friday, while also avoiding what would’ve been a costly defeat.
Last-place Nebraska was flirting with an upset in the second half, but then No. 25 Iowa seized the momentum down the stretch and pulled away, winning 88-78 at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Iowa has now won six of its last seven games and is one of the hottest teams in the country.
Sophomore shooting guard Tony Perkins had arguably his best game as a Hawkeye, finishing with a career-high 20 points, while fifth-year senior guard Connor McCaffery continued his hot streak from 3-point range, making three.
Six players for Iowa scored in double figures, and with Friday’s win, Iowa has won at least 20 games in four consecutive seasons under head coach Fran McCaffery.
“Everybody we put out there is contributing,” Fran McCaffery said.
Iowa is also peaking at the right time, and up next is another very winnable game against Northwestern in the home finale next Monday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa was clinging to a 36-35 lead at halftime on Friday, but Fran McCaffery’s team made enough plays down the stretch on both ends of the court to complete the season sweep.
Iowa also defeated Nebraska 98-75 on Feb. 13 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in a game that wasn’t nearly as competitive as Friday’s matchup.
The Iowa players expected Nebraska to be more competitive at home, and that was the case.
“The first thing we talked about was just because we beat them bad the last time that they would come out and play hard,” Perkins said on the Learfield post-game radio show. “We knew it would be a different game. We stuck to the plan and were able to pull it out in the second half.”
The Murray twins stuffed the stat sheet as they so often do, Jordan Bohannon made some pivotal 3-point baskets and Perkins showed that he can be a key contributor on offense.
But the journey is far from over, and regular-season success only carries so much weight for a fan base that hasn’t experienced the thrill of a Sweet 16 berth since 1999.
Though, the postseason will ultimately define this Iowa team, fair or not, to be 20-8 overall and 10-7 in the Big Ten at the stage is a worthy accomplishment.
Few teams had to replace more offensive firepower than Iowa, and yet, the Keegan Murray-led Hawkeyes are amongst the top scoring teams in the country, and they’re winning games.
Keegan Murray recorded his seventh double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
And though he was held eight points below his Big Ten leading scoring average, it didn’t matter because his supporting cast helped to pick of the slack.
Nebraska competed valiantly on Senior Day, and Iowa struggled at times, but it still didn’t matter because Iowa just has too many weapons on offense.
Defenses have to constantly be aware of Keegan Murray, and they also have to account for Bohannon on the perimeter.
But now they also have to start respecting Perkins as a scorer, and if Connor McCaffery keeps making threes, defenses won’t be able to sag off him, either.
“I got some good looks and the shots started to fall,” said Perkins, who made 8-of-10 shots from the field.
Good teams win games they’re supposed to win and Iowa was supposed to win Friday’s game, and did so.
It wasn’t always pretty, and Nebraska deserves credit for being competitive.
But the underlying take from Friday’s win is that Iowa is talented, versatile, deep and healthy, and gaining confidence with each win.
Keegan Murray is without question the star of the team, but he will only go as far as his supporting can take him.
And right now, his supporting cast is delivering in a big way.