IOWA CITY — Which came first, the team playing a kind of basketball that fires up its fans, or those fans bringing two hours of big noise to fire up their team?
Chicken, egg, it matters not. It all made for a tasty casserole Friday night in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The paid attendance was 14,136. That many and more would have showed up in person had the winter weather not been worse than atrocious. But there were far more folks here than the Hawkeyes themselves expected. Those supporters ended up glad they fought through the snow and ice to see their team fight past Michigan in an intense doozy, 90-83.
“I really, really commend and applaud all the fans who were able to make it out,” said senior Hawkeye forward Ryan Kriener. “I saw a bunch of tweets about people taking two times as long to be here and stuff. I gotta say thank you to everybody.”
The fans made it a charged atmosphere, but they wouldn’t have roared had their team not given them reasons. Nationally ranked opponent, fun ballgame, and a Hawkeyes club that is very easy to like.
Whatever is in store for this club (4-3 in the Big Ten after a 1-3 start) the rest of the way, who knows? It’s a long, unpredictable season. What you can take to the bank is the Hawkeyes play hard, play with an edge, and have some supremely skilled players.
That’s players as in plural, though junior center Luka Garza is doing things you just don’t often see in the college game. Garza had 33 points Friday, yet freshman guard CJ Fredrick was the co-headliner.
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Two games and not many days from being in a walking boot with a stress reaction, Fredrick played 38 minutes and scored 21 points. His 3-pointer with 5:26 left gave Iowa a 76-74 lead after it had been down 74-68 two minutes earlier. It was a lead it kept.
“Joe (Toussaint) was driving down the right side,” Fredrick said. “I saw him driving and I was yelling ‘Trailer!’ I knew five steps before I got the ball I was shooting it. Just that mentality of feet ready, hands ready, and shooting it.”
Just that mentality. A freshman, in a game like this. And his coach has said he fully expects it from the player.
“It’s kind of what he’s always done,” Fran McCaffery said. “So when I say I’m not surprised, I’m not just saying that because I love the kid, which I do. He has been a gamer like that his whole life.
“Huge shots, big games, road atmosphere, sold-out buildings. Rupp Arena, 15,000 people, 33 (points in a Kentucky) state-championship game. This is what he does.”
Then there’s Kriener. He’s been a role player his first three years, but he’s always flashed talent and had his moments. This season, though, he’s key. He’s been needed more than ever because of a decreased roster size due to attrition, and he’s embraced it.
Friday, Iowa was down 16-9 and flailing. Kriener came off the bench to score 11 points in a 16-2 Hawkeyes run.
“Spectacular,” McCaffery called Kriener’s effort.
“Ryan Kriener is not only one of the toughest guys to guard on our team,” Garza said, “but in the country for me. Every single day he’s that good.”
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“We’ve battled just about every day for three years since he’s been here,” Kriener said. “It’s not just battling someone who’s good, it’s battling someone who’s good and knows all your moves.
“So you’ve got to work on counters, you’ve got to work on scoring over him, you have to work on going quick, being patient. You have to be really smart, know when to go, when to kick it, stuff like that. I think it’s been really good for both of us. We’ve really helped each other expand.”
OK, about Garza. What are we seeing here? He’s averaging 28 points in Big Ten games. Twenty-eight points!
Michigan Coach Juwan Howard was a superb college and pro center/power forward. He has seen Garza score 77 points against his team in two games. Seventy-seven points!
“Very skilled basketball player,” Howard said Friday. “He’s proven that he’s one of the best college basketball players in the country.
“The guy’s a player. All the work that he’s put in has definitely paid off for him.”
Said Garza: “You grew up watching guys like that. He’s the type of player that inspired me, just his dominance at all levels, at Michigan and in the NBA. So that means the world to me to have a coach like that talk about me in that way.
“It’s something I’ve been working for, and I’m not done yet.”
Hawkeye fans are driving through wicked weather to watch this team. It’s what people do when someone or something starts to win their hearts.
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