By Pete Ruden
Iowa got itself ready for the continuation of Big Ten play in dominant fashion when it took down Northern Illinois on Dec. 2 in Carver-Hawkeye, 98-75, for its fifth-consecutive victory.
After stellar play throughout the first half in which the Hawkeyes scored 56 points en route to a 24-point halftime lead, Luka Garza stepped up to lead his team to the finish.
The freshman posted a career-high 25 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 5 blocks in just 16 minutes of action.
Garza was basically automatic from the floor — he didn’t miss a shot. He was also a threat from behind the arc, going 3-of-3, a skill he has started to show off in recent weeks.
Sophomore forward Tyler Cook also played well, registering 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 17 minutes, but Garza stood out the most.
Head coach Fran McCaffery said Garza’s energy level was phenomenal and noted his 3-point ability was apparent the first time he ever saw him play.
Garza, who recorded 16 of his points in the second half, has shown his ability and potential recently.
In Iowa’s five-game winning streak, the Washington native has averaged 16.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game, while shooting better than 64 percent from the field.
“I’m just trying to play with a lot more confidence,” Garza said. “In different stretches of the year, I get out there, and I’m a little bit worried, I’m thinking a little too much about my jumper and different stuff like that. When I run up, and I just catch it and shoot it, I don’t miss many of those.”
The Hawkeyes clicked in all aspects of the game against the Huskies.
Iowa committed only 8 turnovers, the lowest number it has recorded since turning it over just seven times against Southern on Dec. 10.
Turnovers have certainly been a concern for the young Hawkeye team all season, so a low number right before conference play restarts could go a long way.
Iowa also played tremendous team ball, assisting on 34 of the team’s 36 buckets (tying a school record set in 1984). The way the group shared the ball led to open shots and a shooting performance of 51.8 percent from the field, 46.2 percent from 3-point range.
“We talked about coming into the game, we wanted to get really good ball movement consistently,” McCaffery said. “I don’t think we had a basket in the second half without having an assist attached to it, which is pretty amazing … Really proud of the guys continuing unselfishness and just having your head up.”
Iowa’s play on Dec. 29 has the potential to set off a chain reaction in which the Hawkeyes can start moving up the conference standings.
After an 0-2 start to Big Ten play in December, Iowa will battle Michigan and Ohio State in the new year in an effort to gain some traction in the most important part of the season.
If the Hawkeyes can keep their level of play going, Big Ten foes could be in for something unexpected.
“We felt like we could’ve played this way from the jump,” Cook said. “We got some really stiff competition coming up in conference play, but I think that if we stay in the same mental state in terms of executing our game plan and what we want to do ourselves, try to come battle other teams, I think we can create a serious accomplishment.”