IOWA CITY — Wisconsin basketball star Ethan Happ collided with Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon after tracking down a second-half rebound Tuesday night, kept possession of the ball as Bohannon was knocked down by the much-bigger player, then dribbled around and through other Hawkeyes to the basket.
Happ’s finger roll of a shot hung on the Carver-Hawkeye Arena rim. Then it fell off, and Iowa freshman center Luka Garza grabbed it. In just about all of the Hawkeyes’ previous Big Ten games, the shot would have gone in and the opponent would be grabbing or extending momentum.
This wasn’t one of those games. The opponent didn’t sear the nets or play sounder ball. Nor did Iowa get baffled by the concept of defense.
No, on this night the air was cleaner and the postgame meal tasted better to the Hawkeyes. On this night, after seven losses in eight league games, Iowa looked like a competent Big Ten team.
It was just one game, and against a Badgers club that’s suddenly mediocre after two decades of being stellar. But ohhh, how sweet Iowa’s 85-67 domination was around here.
Something seldom seen in this arena in 2018 was on the faces of the Hawkeye players as Bohannon dribbled out the game’s final several seconds: Smiles.
In fact, the team looked loose even before it jumped to a 9-0 lead. Maybe the unpleasant video review of their 87-64 debacle of a loss to Purdue here three days earlier made distinct impressions, as well as a lot of film study of Happ and his team.
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At any rate, this was how this Iowa team was supposed to look this season, or certainly more often than it has. Before turning an ankle midway through the second half, Iowa sophomore forward Tyler Cook resembled what he has been when he’s been at his best here.
Call it hops, bounce, whatever, Cook had it while scoring 17 points in only 24 minutes.
“A monster game,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery termed it.
“I just think we played with more enthusiasm, more emotion,” Cook said.
Happ, a first-team All-Big Ten player a year ago and no slouch this season, collected 17 second-half points to finish with 21. But nearly all came after his team was behind by double-digits. Cook was the best big this night.
Garza gets the silver medal in that department, only because he got beat defensively a few times by the skilled Happ. But Garza matched Cook’s 17 points, and had a career-high 16 rebounds. Overall, his defense against Happ was pretty darn good.
“He’s a great player,” Garza said. “We watched a lot of film. I watched a lot of film individually as well as with the coaches. We were just locked into what he would do.
“I think I was beating him to some spots. He tried to fake a couple of handoffs and I’d seen that on film, that he loves to do that. So I was right there on that.”
Most 6-foot-11 freshmen hit a so-called wall during the season. The length of the season, the quality of the competition, the pace of the games — it all adds up to a lot for any rookie, let alone a 235-pounder. But Garza’s game has improved as this season has aged.
“He’s a gamer, he’s a warrior, however you want to describe him,” McCaffery said. “He’s relentless.
“He’s got an incredible sense of where the ball’s going to go, coming off the rim or if it’s loose. He knows how to get open. He’s got really good feel. And he just keeps coming. He doesn’t take possessions off. A lot of big guys and a lot of young big guys, they tire. When they tire, they take possessions off. He doesn’t do that.”
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If the wall that freshmen big players hit were real instead of a metaphor, Garza would probably try to run through it.
“I don’t feel any fatigue,” he said. “I love this game. I play it 365 days a year. I’m not fatigued.”
Iowa remains in 13th-place in the Big Ten, but it owns a “W1” under “current streak.” One win in a row.
“A big win for us, morale-wise,” Cook said.
You have to start somewhere, and better to do it with this kind of authority.