IOWA CITY — It was at times haphazard. It was at times messy. It was at times an onslaught.
Ultimately, it was an opening-round National Invitation Tournament win for the Iowa men’s basketball team. The Hawkeyes got an 87-75 win against South Dakota on Wednesday night in front of an electric Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd of 12,864, and part of what made them electric was the play of a few guys who could do some special things in an Iowa uniform the next few years.
Freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon played as well as he has all season, finishing with 19 points, a career-high 11 assists and just one turnover — giving him 21 assists and five turnovers in his last two games. Freshman forward Tyler Cook played his most efficient game all season, finishing with 18 points and eight rebounds on 8 of 8 shooting from the field.
Those two, among others, buried the notion of an NIT letdown.
“We’re starting to run plays for each other, running oops for each other; starting to run things we’ve been practicing since the summer,” Bohannon said. “All the things we’ve worked on since the summer are starting to show now in the postseason. Those are things we need to keep working on these next three years. We have something that’s really special that we can do here in the next couple years.”
While it’s not the postseason tournament they’d prefer to be playing in, maybe the something special could be now.
Coach Fran McCaffery once again downplayed the fact that it was freshmen who scored 59 of Iowa’s 87 points. He said after the game it no longer matters what year they’re in because “I go to these guys because they produce.”
What he did highlight was the fact that Bohannon, especially, has improved in handling pressure. South Dakota did several different things to get after the freshman point guard to disrupt him, trapping and hedging, “but he just kept going,” McCaffery said.
Bohannon said after the game he’s felt himself go from a guy who “was really hesitant with the ball,” to becoming “more comfortable around pressure.” He credited his teammates with improving in that area, too, which frees him up as well. And while the Hawkeyes collectively were “a little sped up” in the first half with 10 turnovers, Cook said they “ironed themselves out,” thanks to how in-sync they’ve all become.
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“We’re just playing. We’re comfortable with the way each other plays and he does a great job finding me as well. I think we’re in-sync right now,” Cook said. “Whether or not he scores 20 points or has 15 assists, the little things he does — he runs our team really well. His smarts play into the game as much as his stats do.”
Cook’s game was another among a few in the last handful Iowa has played that have shown him to be the player most expected he would be coming in.
Cook acknowledged after the game he was probably trying to do too much to make a highlight play when the season first started, but that has given way to more efficient plays late in the season. Cook cleaned up the glass offensively with four offensive rebounds and helped Iowa to 18 second-chance points.
“As he’s had a chance to mature through experience, he’s affecting the game at both ends,” McCaffery said of Cook. “You’re also seeing it reflected in his rebounding totals, his rebounding numbers. At the beginning of the year he wasn’t getting eight, 10 rebounds like he is now.”
Of course, it wasn’t just Bohannon and Cook that affected the Hawkeyes’ win.
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Moss powered Iowa through its rough patch in the first half with 3-pointers on three out of four possessions at one point. He finished with 16 points and four rebounds on 6 of 12 shooting from the field.
Senior Peter Jok finished with 20 points and six rebounds of his own on 7 of 14 shooting — despite playing in foul trouble for much of the game. Additionally, Ahmad Wagner added six points and seven rebounds — two offensive rebounds in one flurry that McCaffery said came “right when we needed it.”
The Hawkeyes entered the game with the desire to erase a less-than-stellar showing at the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa put it together mid-second half and used its athleticism — primarily in transition and on the boards — to put away the Coyotes.
The history of NCAA Tournament bubble teams letting down in the NIT didn’t follow Iowa into the postseason. McCaffery expected nothing less. It didn’t hurt that when things weren’t going their way, the Hawkeyes had the crowd to lean on.
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Bohannon, Cook and Co. get another chance to do that on Sunday, as TCU comes to town for a 4 p.m. second-round matchup.
“I am very proud. I quite frankly would have been very shocked if they didn’t do that. I mean, just knowing this group the way that I do, I felt like they would come out and play this way with tremendous fight,” McCaffery said. “We respected our opponent. We fought. We got the job done. That’s what you want to do.”
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