MINNEAPOLIS — Nothing about the moment suggested a comeback victory was coming.
The Iowa men’s basketball team had just fallen behind 55-47 to Minnesota with 5:21 left because the Gophers had ripped off eight straight points in a 41-second period. With points so hard to come by for the Hawkeyes, with a player rotation that had gotten even shorter because of the previous game’s ankle sprain to CJ Fredrick, with Joe Wieskamp scoring a season-low 2 points, with Luka Garza needing to play carefully with four fouls, things seemed grim.
Except to Garza and his team.
“When they went up eight and I checked (back) in — we had a timeout — I told everybody we were going to win this game because I had confidence,” Garza said. “I knew we had enough time to do it, and we were able to go out on an 11-0 run.”
Iowa forced five turnovers and allowed zero points in that last 5:21 and scored 11 points of its own for a 58-55 triumph in Williams Arena. Luka knew, or so he said.
It was defense down the stretch. It was offensive execution down the stretch. And, oh yeah, it was Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu missing the front end of a one-and-one with 3.8 seconds left and his team behind 57-55.
Garza fouled out on the play that put Oturu on the line. Garza put his hands on his head in anguish, knowing if Oturu made two foul shots and the game went to overtime, he would be a spectator.
Instead, he was soon back on the court, trading chest bumps with giddy teammates. Connor McCaffery made one of two free throws with 2.9 seconds left, and Minnesota’s Marcus Carr wasn’t close on a heave from the backcourt.
No. 21 Iowa is 18-8 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten. Perhaps no other win this season was as ugly. Perhaps no other was as beautiful.
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“I think it was a belief in the huddle within this team that we were going to win the game,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “Luka said it. He verbalized it at one time. He said ‘We’re gonna win the game.’
“There was just never any panic. You cannot go on the road and get down eight with five minutes to go and panic.”
“To be honest,” Connor McCaffery said, “I still felt good after that (timeout) because we were all still very engaged and there was no letdown at all.”
Garza hit a 3-pointer with 2:21 left to pull the Hawkeyes within 55-54. They were the last of his 24 points, and came right out of a timeout. Shortly before the break, a Garza 3-point try had rattled out.
“Coach called a play for me right after I missed it,” Garza said. “He had a lot of faith in me and confidence in me. That’s why I was able to hit it, because he trusts me.”
With the game tied at 55 with 1:15 left, Iowa guard Bakari Evelyn hit two free throws to give his team its first second-half lead. It was another matter of trust, as was the 3-pointer he hit midway through the second half.
“I haven’t been shooting as well as I wanted to,” Evelyn said. “But I’ve been shooting real good in practice, been in the gym working a lot on my shot. My teammates have got confidence in me and my coaches do, too.”
Of those free throws that were as big as any he’s made, Evelyn said “I tried to just think it was something I’ve just done hundreds of times before in my life. Not try to make the moment bigger than it was. It’s just a shot, it’s a free throw, and step up and shoot it.
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“It’s kind of funny. It was so loud everybody kind of canceled each other out. So it’s almost like I didn’t hear anybody.”
We’ve saved Ryan Kriener for last here. The senior big man came up, well, big. He played a career-high 34 minutes, had 10 points, 7 rebounds, and a career-best 4 blocked shots. He helped defend the terrific Oturu, who came in averaging 21.5 points in Big Ten games and labored to get 15.
Kriener is from Spirit Lake, Iowa, where he can almost see Minnesota from his house. Before a lot of friends and family here, he was a force.
The win, Kriener said, “just speaks to the heart and character of our team. ... Yeah, we’ve got a lot of heart.”
Thirty-four minutes. “My legs are definitely heavy,” Kriener said.
His heart definitely was not.
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