IOWA CITY — Ferocious, wildly entertaining, and ultimately, successful.
That was Iowa’s basketball team Thursday night in its 83-78 win over 19th-ranked Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, surely warranting a lot of wondering from a Big Ten Network audience about what these young Iowa players will be like with a year or two of experience.
But on this night, the future was now. Freshman power forward Tyler Cook lived up to his billing, being a true presence in the paint and scoring 16 points.
Freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon had 12 points and 9 assists. After he had apparently hurt an ankle and had to leave the game late, he returned to make two super-clutch foul shots with 11 seconds left on a night the Hawkeyes made free throw-shooting look painful.
Another frosh, 6-9 center Ryan Kriener, left his spot deep on the Iowa bench to score six points midway through the second half and show no fear contending with Purdue’s 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas.
“Ryan Kriener was fantastic,” said sophomore Iowa forward Nicholas Baer, who did a vast array of Nicholas Baer things and had 10 rebounds in just 19 minutes.
You get the distinct sense opposing players do not like playing against that very controlled whirling dervish.
Then there was the senior, the sharpshooter, the silky smooth Peter Jok. What a game he had with 29 points and such command.
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“My game plan was to be a playmaker and find open guys,” said Jok, who set a career-high for assists with eight.
This is a big country with a lot of wonderful college players, including some who wear Purdue uniforms. But is any collegian in America clearly having a better season than Jok so far?
“Pete was Pete all game,” Baer said. “Making shots, tough shots. Making plays for others.”
The atmosphere for an 8:06 p.m. midweek game was predictably stale at the onset, it being an 8:06 p.m. midweek game and all. But the fans who showed up probably all went home feeling glad they did.
This was a ballgame. This was a marquee opponent. This isn’t your father’s Matt Painter-coached Boilermakers team. These Boilers don’t regard the 30-second shot clock as something to be whittled to a nub each possession. They move the ball around, and they score.
But the Hawkeyes kept coming back. They were down 47-38 at halftime, but opened the second half with a 5-0 run. Iowa took three leads that were taken back by the Boilermakers. However, the Hawkeyes never blinked and held the veteran visitors scoreless in the final 2:47.
“They’re hoopers and they’re not scared,” Jok said about his freshmen running mates. “Coach has been positive with them. All the coaches have been positive with them. Us upperclassmen ... told them just go hoop. ... They’re not scared.”
Battle lines were drawn in the first half. The Hawkeyes learned from their 89-67 loss at Purdue two weeks earlier.
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The 6-7 Baer blocked a dunk attempt of Purdue’s 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas. Hawkeye 6-8 freshman Cordell Pemsl wrestled with Haas for a loose ball in the half’s final minute for a tie-up, but Pemsl won the battle on style as he powered Haas to the floor in the scrum.
Before this game, you could have made a case for Purdue power forward Caleb Swanigan as the conference’s star of stars. He leads the nation in rebounding and has done many other things well.
Yet, Swanigan didn’t produce the late-game heroics this night. Cook, Bohannon, Baer, and Jok — say it again, 29 points and 8 assists — did.
Purdue is a fine team, a Big Ten title-contender, the team that crushed the Hawkeyes in West Lafayette on Dec. 28.
But guess what? It’s only tied with the Hawkeyes in league play at 3-2. Who knew rebuilding could be enjoyable?
“It shows where we can be at if we keep building,” said Cook. “We didn’t back down tonight.”
Baer sounds as levelheaded off the court as he is on it. He said “It’s a journey. ... We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re excited about the journey.”
This team still is unlikely to get the results Fran McCaffery’s last three Iowa teams got, with seasons ending in the NCAA tournament. This team, though, has been the most fun of his to watch. Thursday night, with a win over a high-quality foe, was fun and more.
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