By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It might seem like an overreaction to call the fourth game of a 20-game conference schedule a must-win, but it sure felt that way for the Iowa men’s basketball team on Sunday.
A loss to Nebraska and the Hawkeyes would have fallen to 0-4 in the Big Ten for the first time since Fran McCaffery’s debut season as the Iowa head coach in 2010-11.
A loss would have been Iowa’s 18th in its last 22 Big Ten games dating back to last season.
A loss also would have fueled the argument that Iowa’s 11-0 record against nonconference opponents was nothing more than fool’s gold.
So it was imperative that Iowa beat Nebraska on Sunday and that’s what happened thanks partly to Jordan Bohannon rediscovering his touch from 3-point range, to Ryan Kriener’s contribution as a rare starter and to Luka Garza’s contribution in a rare appearance off the bench.
The Hawkeyes needed all three of their contributions to defeat Nebraska 93-84 before an announced attendance of 11,782 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Bohannon led Iowa with 25 points, with all but three of his points coming in the second half.
He also made eight consecutive free throws in the final minutes to help secure the victory as the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes improved to 1-3 in the Big Ten and 12-3 overall.
Nebraska fell to 1-3 in the conference and 11-4 overall.
“It’s hard to get your first Big Ten win, especially against a team like Nebraska,” Bohannon said. “They have one of the most talented five guys probably in the Big Ten and how they’re able to score the ball, and we did a really good job of marking guys and being able to make them take tough shots. And we got some stops when we needed to, especially down the stretch.”
Bohannon had gone scoreless until he banked in a 3-point shot from about 30 feet right before the halftime buzzer.
That gave Iowa a 44-40 lead at the break and it gave Bohannon confidence heading into the second half.
“It’s nice to see one of those shots go in, especially with the season I’ve been having shooting the ball,” Bohannon said. “My teammates did a really good job of finding me tonight and I was able to knock some shots down. I just kept shooting it. That’s what they’ve been telling me to do.”
Iowa was clinging to a 72-68 lead when Bohannon made a 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 15 seconds left to play. He also made a trey to expand Iowa’s lead to 83-75 in the closing minutes.
He then clinched the victory by making all eight of his free throws attempts in the final minute.
“He hit the thirty footer and he banked it in and I think that obviously changed stuff,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “He’s a really good player. He hurt us in zone attack where he was in the gap, and you know you’re going to give something up.”
Kriener, meanwhile, made the most out of his first career start by scoring 14 points and blocking three shots. The 6-foot-9 Spirit Lake native scored the first points in the game on a 3-point basket and that helped to set the tone.
“You could see his confidence when he waxed a three to begin the game,” Fran McCaffery said.
Kriener started in place of Garza, who had missed the previous two games because of a sprained ankle.
“I had a few jitters going in, but as soon as it went in I wasn’t nervous,” Kriener said of his 3-pointer. “It was time to play ball.”
Garza entered the game for the first time with 11:59 left in the first half and made an immediate with six points.
He then received a loud ovation from the fans upon returning to the bench.
Garza wasn’t finished in the first half, though, as he was inserted back in the game after junior forward Tyler Cook picked up a second foul with just over 2 minutes left before halftime.
Garza made a jump hook off the glass o give Iowa a 39-35 lead with 1:22 left in the first half, and then Bohannon followed with his buzzer beater at halftime..
Cook led Iowa with 12 points in the first half, shooting 4-for-5 from both the field and from the free throw line.
Garza scored eight points in the first half, while playing slightly more than eight minutes.
“It was a great feeling to get up and down a little bit and to contribute a little bit,” Garza said. “It was a great team win.”
It probably isn’t coincidence that Iowa prevailed in a game in which Bohannon made a significant contribution on offense.
The offense is more effective when Bohannon is making perimeter shots because defenses are forced to step out on him and that creates more space for his teammates.
“It’s the same thing with all shooters, everyone has those kinds of slumps,” Garza said in reference to Bohannon. “And it’s just great to see him shoot at his ability. He’s a tremendous shooter, the best shooter I’ve ever played with in my life.
“So you know those are going to fall.”
All five of Iowa’s starters scored at least 10 points and made at least three baskets.
In addition to scoring 12 points, junior guard Isaiah Moss also led Iowa with a career-high 12 rebounds while recording his first double-double.
Moss also made all but one of his six free-throw attempts, and Iowa made 29-of-32 free throw attempts overall.
Iowa also made 10-of-22 shots from 3-point range, while Nebraska missed 19 of its 23 shots from 3-point range.
Bohannon was 5-for-8 from 3-point range and a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line.
He didn’t think he was aggressive enough on offense during the 86-70 loss at Purdue on Thursday and was determined toi change that against Nebraska.
“Coming into this game I realized that I probably needed to be a little more aggressive knowing they were probably going to be up into me in this game as well,” Bohannon said. “That was something I emphasized going in.
“And we did a good job of getting it inside. Ryan had a phenomenal game tonight. That’s the Ryan that I know and that I’ve played with ever since I was little.”
Bohannon and his cohorts will now look to win back-to-back conference games when Iowa plays at Northwestern on Wednesday.