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Leistikow: 9 important minutes at Rutgers could mean a lot for Iowa's Big Ten title hopes


Chad Leistikow   | Hawk Central

We’re already 40% of the way through Iowa’s regular-season men’s basketball schedule, and the Hawkeyes remain relevant in the national conversation.

On Monday, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 7 in the NCAA’s initial NET rankings. That would suggest they’re worthy (at this point) of a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which we learned Monday will be played entirely in the state of Indiana.

Also Monday, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 5 by the Associated Press (a five-spot jump) and No. 7 in the USA TODAY Coaches’ Poll as a result of completing a very good and important week of basketball as it pertains to the Big Ten Conference race.

They began the week with a much-needed rout of then-No. 19 Northwestern.

At 9-2 overall and 3-1 in league play, the Hawkeyes arguably have one of the best Big Ten wins to date among the top challengers — Saturday’s 77-75 triumph at then-No. 13 Rutgers.

Given this space would have ordinarily been devoted to a video-review column from Iowa’s Music City Bowl appearance that never was, let’s give the Hawkeye basketball team some DVR Monday treatment.

And let’s specifically drill down into the game’s final nine minutes — which we may look back on as a very important nine-minute stretch when the Big Ten regular season is over.

The ball barely touched the floor as Iowa unleashed eight rapid-fire points in 63 seconds.

The Hawkeyes were struggling to score, having generated just 12 points in nearly 11 minutes to open the second half. But defense ignited the offense.

Rutgers looked to add to its 54-47 lead as Hawkeye killer Ron Harper Jr. got the ball near the basket. But as he elevated, Jack Nunge and Keegan Murray each got a hand on the shot attempt — Murray officially got credited with a block with 9:01 remaining — and freshman Ahron Ulis hustled to get the loose ball and deftly flipped it ahead, in stride, to Joe Wieskamp.

Time to count the dribbles past half-court:

One dribble, three points. Wieskamp soared for a bucket and drew the foul to make it 54-50.

Three dribbles, two points. After Murray tipped away an entry pass, Jordan Bohannon collected the turnover and raced upcourt. He dribbled twice to his left — finding Murray on the wing, who quickly zipped the ball to Ulis, who took one dribble into the lane and flipped it to Luka Garza along the right baseline. The all-American center buried a 12-footer. Great ball movement; 54-52.

One dribble, three points. Bohannon collected a long rebound of a missed Harper 3 and remarkably took just one dribble past half-court and jump-stopped at his favorite spot — right of the key, 25 feet — and buried a trey. 55-54 Iowa.

That sequence kicked off a stretch that saw Iowa score seven times (totaling 16 points) on eight possessions, which was important because Rutgers got hot, too.

Two big buckets between Garza’s big finish (15 points in 6:16) and Murray’s go-ahead free throws (with :16 left) should not be forgotten.

CJ Fredrick attempted one shot in the final 12 minutes. Bohannon tried just one 2-pointer in the second half.

Both resulted in critical makes in the final two minutes.

Let’s start with Fredrick, who always seems to come up with a big basket when Iowa needs one. It was not his best game (seven points, 3-for-9 shooting, team-worst minus-6). But with Iowa down, 71-70, Fredrick’s savvy movement paid off. He worked off a screen from Murray to get free from Geo Baker in the left corner, and Bohannon found him. Fredrick pump-faked as Baker caught up, then dribbled once to create a floating, 14-footer — and nailed it, with 1:34 to go.

Then at 73-72 Rutgers after an Iowa timeout with :52 left, Bohannon — not Garza — got the call. Bohannon took the inbounds pass and dribbled through the lane to Garza's left. Garza’s crafty positioning sealed off Myles Johnson from helping. That meant Bohannon just had to keep Jacob Young on his hip and offer a quick-release shot, which happens to be a Bohannon specialty. He swished it with :48 left for a 74-73 Iowa lead.

The anatomy of Iowa’s final two defensive sequences.

How do you win a tight Big Ten game on the road? By making free throws (Iowa did, going 14-for-15 in the second half) and getting stops.

After Murray coolly put the Hawkeyes in front, 76-75, the Scarlet Knights still had two chances to win. Iowa stopped both.

Iowa first went with a 2-3 zone, and Bohannon picked up Baker as he drove the lane. Fredrick came to help, leaving 40% 3-point shooter Montez Mathis uncovered to the left. That’s why what happened next was so important. As Baker rose in the lane, Bohannon got his right hand on the ball (maybe he got some wrist, too), and that forced the Rutgers guard to bat the now-loose ball toward Mathis, whose interior pass to Johnson was alertly tipped upward by Garza. Johnson bobbled the ball and stepped out of bounds, a turnover with 4.4 seconds left.

After one Wieskamp free throw, Rutgers had the ball and 3.0 seconds left under its own basket. Steve Pikiell's play was well-designed. Fran McCaffery subbed the taller Jack Nunge for Fredrick (to guard the inbounds pass) and the quicker Ulis for Bohannon in a 1-1-3 look. Jacob Young passed to Baker, then got the ball back just behind mid-court with 2 seconds left in a full sprint. Ulis' fast recovery was just enough to force Young to his left, and Garza did a nice job calculating Young’s path and obstructing it, standing straight up and arms high — about 25 feet from the bucket. That meant Young had to launch a contested 30-footer, and it missed. Game over.

And now, another week with two big games. They're all big, but going 2-0 this week means stealing one at Maryland (at 6 p.m. Thursday) for the first time since 2017, then getting revenge on Minnesota (at 1:30 p.m. Sunday) for the overtime gut-wrencher on Christmas Day.

I would think most Iowa fans would sign up today for their team’s first No. 2 seed since 1987, as the NCAA NET rankings suggest. But for now, they can appreciate those nine good minutes at Rutgers that could go a long way toward postseason positioning.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.