The worst defensive team in the Big Ten, finally turned in a strong defensive performance Thursday night — and got its biggest win of the season.
In fact, Thursday night's 78-64 win over in-state rival and 25th-ranked Iowa State was Iowa's first win of note on the campaign.
For all of their points — Iowa is one of the highest-scoring teams in the conference — the Hawkeyes were paper thin on defense in their five losses this season against name opponents Seton Hall, Virginia, Memphis and Notre Dame, not to mention Omaha, the small-conference foe that pushed Iowa's losing streak to four games last weekend. Those five teams averaged 91 points a game against the Hawkeyes, and if you take out low-scoring Virginia — which wins not by scoring points but preventing them, like when it held Iowa to just 41 — that scoring average among the other four teams shoots up to 95.3.
But such was not the case Thursday in Iowa City, with the Hawkeyes limiting the Cyclones to 64 points — a season-low for an Iowa opponent — on just 35.7-percent shooting.
So, Fran McCaffery, was this the best your defense has been all season?
"Yeah, I would say that."
Only twice prior had the Hawkeyes turned in a scoring output of fewer than 80 points, both in losses against Virginia and Notre Dame. But that's not to say that the typically high-scoring Hawkeyes were ineffective on offense. They shot 47.3 percent from the field and scored nine points off turnovers and 13 on the fast break. They narrowly won the rebounding and turnover battles but had a big advantage at the free-throw line, going 17-for-24 from the stripe while the visiting Cyclones were just 6-for-9.
Iowa got its biggest performance from who else but Peter Jok, the Big Ten's leading scorer putting up 23 points and grabbing nine rebounds. But the young Hawkeyes stepped up, too. Freshman Isaiah Moss scored 14 points; he's scored 35 points combined in his last two games. Freshman Cordell Pemsl finished with 11 points, his fourth straight game scoring in double figures. Sophomore Nicholas Baer had 10 points to go along with eight rebounds. And freshman Jordan Bohannon stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, five rebounds and four assists.
"I thought in terms of putting everything together, you know, we had been really good at times," McCaffery said. "We had not really put it together for 40 minutes, and you have to against this team, a lot of veterans. And right from the opening tip, we were locked into the game plan and stayed with it in terms of try to keep it out of the paint, trying to get back, limit their easy baskets, try to limit their second-shot opportunities. And then, you know, the other end moved the ball. They got up into us pretty good. So it's not as easy as it looks, but you've got to get it moving but you have some opportunities to drive the ball. So really proud of our guys."
It was a huge win for a Hawkeyes team that seemed to be in free fall as recently as early this week. Prior to Thursday, Iowa's wins came against the unimpressive lineup of Kennesaw State, Savannah State, Texas-Rio Grande Valley and Stetson. Any team of note had its way.
Even with the win, Iowa still ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing an average of 81.2 points a game.
But Thursday's victory — which snapped a three-year losing streak to Iowa State — gave a young squad a landmark win over a ranked team to build off with just three games remaining before the start of conference play.
"We had the potential to be better than we were playing," McCaffery said. "And you know, I sort of kept saying it: We played pretty well against Memphis at times, at Notre Dame for longer, Seton Hall at times, and even Omaha at times. Started to put it together a little bit against Stetson. But this is a team that is ranked. So it is a step.
"But you can never be too satisfied, just like you can't get too down if you lose a game, whether it be this game or another game. That was a tough loss for us the other night against Omaha, tough loss. But how do you respond, you know, and they went right back to work. They locked into Stetson, they put it together, came right back. No nonsense, very mature approach to game preparation, following the game plan. And I thought the enthusiasm of the guys on the floor and the guys on the bench, how they were supporting their teammates, and of course the crowd was spectacular, but our whole bench was really into the game in a way that you have to be to win a game of this caliber."