By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It was only one game against an overmatched, mid-level, nonconference opponent, but Payton Sandfort might eventually look back at it as the turning point for him.
At least, that’s the hope.
Iowa’s 6-foot-7 sophomore guard finally showed signs of breaking out of a season-long shooting slump by scoring a career-high 24 points in Saturday’s 106-75 victory over Southeast Missouri State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Sandfort scored 17 points in the first half on 7-of-9 shooting from the field.
He entered Saturday’s game having scored just 41 points in the last eight games and shooting just 34.2 percent from the field and 20.5 percent from 3-point range.
Sandfort had only made three of his last 29 shots from 3-point range prior to Saturday’s breakout performance.
“I can’t explain it, man. It’s been a touch stretch,” Sandfort said. “I’m really proud of myself. I think I’ve really found myself through the stretch, both on and off the court.
“A lot of rough nights, but I just continue to put in the work and that’s not going to stop. Regardless of the outcome, I’m not going to change who I am.”
Iowa also benefitted from a strong performance by 6-9 senior forward Filip Rebraca, who finished with a career-high 30 points, including 19 in the first half. He also had nine rebounds and six assists.
The basket that gave Rebraca 30 points came on a nifty no-look pass from Sandfort.
“I felt like I was larger than them, so I took advantage of my size, and I always play hard, so it was kind of came easy at times,” Rebraca said.
Rebraca was thrilled to see Sandfort break out of his slump because Rebraca knows what Sandfort means to the team.
“It was really good,” Rebraca said. “He missed a few to start, but once it started falling, it was like never-ending, I guess. It was real good to see him score because we need him.
There was a stretch in the first half when Sandfort scored 15 of Iowa’s 17 points.
“He was real close,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Sandfort. “He had been playing very well, working hard and staying after it, staying positive.
“And the thing that I told him is that sometimes guys that are good shooters they get the reputation, okay, he’s a shooter. Payton Sandfort is a really good basketball player.”
Junior forward Patrick McCaffery also had another strong performance on offense with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Iowa played its third straight game without leading scorer and rebounder, Kris Murray, who is recovering from a lower body injury.
However, Murray wasn’t on crutches for Saturday’s game, nor was his left foot in a boot as it had been for the previous game.
So, that could be a sign of progress.
Sandfort is being counted on to help fill the perimeter shooting void left by former point guard Jordan Bohannon, who ended his career last season as the Big Ten all-time leader in 3-point field goals.
Sandfort made three 3-point baskets in each of Iowa’s first two games against Bethune Cookman and North Carolina A&T, but he had struggled ever since until Saturday’s game.
Former Iowa basketball player Adam Haluska said this past Wednesday on the Hawk Fanatic radio show and podcast that Sandford appeared to struggling mentally, and that he had a case of “happy feet” that was disrupting the rhythm of his shot.
After making his first 3-point basket in Saturday’s game, which came from about three feet beyond the top of the key, Sandfort turned and pumped his fist as if to say finally, that’s more like it.”
His whole game seemed to improve after his shots started to fall as Sandfort also had six rebounds in the first half, which ended with Iowa holding a 58-41 lead.
Iowa improved to 8-3 overall and will play its final nonconference game on Wednesday against Eastern Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa will resume Big Ten against Nebraska on Dec. 29th in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Iowa lost its Big Ten opener to Wisconsin 78-75 last Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
— Iowa Men’s Basketball (@IowaHoops) December 18, 2022