PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Jordan Bohannon credited “the Cedar Rapids water.”
Keegan Murray’s basketball prowess is probably more from the bloodline of being the son of former Hawkeye Kenyon Murray, and perhaps even more from Keegan’s intense desire to be good at the sport and play mistake-free ball.
But Cedar Rapids can happily take credit for the freshman forward’s rapid development as a key Hawkeye, one who joined senior guard Bohannon in helping the Hawkeyes knock off Rutgers 77-75 Saturday at Rutgers Athletic Center.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Linn-Mar grad Bohannon said about Prairie High product Murray after the win in a meeting of two top-15 teams. “He kind of reminds me of myself, the confidence I played with as a freshman.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery slips into hyperbole at times when his describing his players, but he was on the button Saturday when he called Murray’s play here “fabulous at both ends.”
Murray had 14 points, a team-high nine rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals. He sank two free throws with 16.4 seconds left to give his team a 76-75 lead it didn’t surrender.
“The moment he stepped on campus,” Iowa’s Luka Garza said of Murray, “you could tell he was not a freshman. He has the mentality of an experienced guy. He’s so confident when he walks on the court.”
Murray was already 3-of-3 at the line before he shot the biggest ones of his young career.
“When I saw the first two go in in the first half,” he said, “the basket looked big to me.
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“Honestly, I didn’t really feel any pressure. I’ve been through it before. I trust my shot. It just went in. I knew it was going to go in.”
Cocky? Nope. He emphasized the victory was “a complete team effort. We showed we could battle with tough teams, great defensive-minded teams. ... If I can do anything to make my team win, it’s satisfying to me.”
“To me,” McCaffery said, “the best play he made all day was when he took (Ron) Harper off the dribble and blocked his jumper.”
Murray has been good since Game 1. But this was elevating his game when the Hawkeyes needed elevation. He re-entered the game with 18:30 left after Jack Nunge followed a great first half with an out-of-sorts 90 seconds. Murray stayed for the duration.
“I felt good the whole time,” he said.
Another Iowa freshman couldn’t have been on the scouting report of Rutgers’ coaches. Point guard Ahron Ulis hadn’t appeared in a Big Ten game, and hadn’t played since Dec. 13. He was called upon in the first half after starter Connor McCaffery injured an ankle three minutes into the game.
Ulis had a basket and two assists in a 14-3 Iowa first-half run, and had two more assists in a 10-0 second-half spree. Thrust into a game against veteran guards, the Chicagoan didn’t flinch.
“I knew that he’d be ready when his name was called,” Murray said, “and he showed it today. He’s a great point guard. Great pace, great rhythm, and he just found the open guys and made great plays.”
If Connor McCaffery’s injury weren’t enough, backup point guard Joe Toussaint got poked in the eye by Rutgers’ Myles Johnson with 11:03 left and had to leave the game. The Hawkeyes were down 50-43. Ulis returned, and again played well. Iowa was down by just one point when Ulis left at the 5:33 mark.
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“He’s got tremendous confidence in himself,” Fran McCaffery said. “He’s really smart. He’s got good size and speed. He’s ready. He’s ready to go. You call his name and he’s ready, and I had no hesitation putting him in.”
This was the kind of win that makes a team feel like it gained ground on everybody in the Big Ten, because few visiting teams prevail here. Illinois didn’t in December.
The conference season is long. But if these freshmen keep supplementing Iowa’s veteran cast the way they did Saturday, the Hawkeyes have more flexibility for the 20-game league haul. You can never have too much of that.
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