PHILADELPHIA – The hugs, handshakes and time spent reminiscing with family and friends are things that Fran McCaffery will cherish forever about his trip home this weekend.
But this was also a business trip and that’s where McCaffery’s depleted squad fell just short on Saturday under difficult circumstances.
No. 21 Penn State overcame the continued dominance of junior center Luka Garza and hung on to defeat the 23rd-ranked Iowa men’s basketball team 89-86 before a sellout crowd at the historic Palestra in McCaffery's home town of Philadelphia.
The 6-foot-11 Garza scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, while sophomore Joe Wieskamp finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
It was Garza’s eighth double-double of the season and the third time he has scored at least 30 points in a game this season.
Garza and Wieskamp combined to score 25 of Iowa’s first 30 points in the second half.
But Garza also missed half of his 14 free throw attempts, including several down the stretch in the second half. He was the only player for Iowa who missed a free throw during Saturday's game as the Hawkeyes were 13-of-20 overall from the free throw line.
Iowa played the entire second half without redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick, who started the game, but was hobbled by an ankle injury.
The Hawkeyes already were shorthanded without sophomore forward Jack Nunge, senior point guard Jordan Bohannon and freshman forward Patrick McCaffery all unavailable due to health-related matters.
So losing Fredrick was a critical blow, and yet, Garza and his cohorts still almost found a way to prevail, which is cause for optimism.
Penn State improved to 12-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten, while Iowa fell to 10-4 and 1-2.
Iowa freshman point guard Joe Toussaint made two free throws that trimmed the deficit to 83-81 with 32.9 seconds remaining.
Myles Dread then answered with two free throws for Penn State with 28.9 seconds left to play, pushing the lead back to four points at 85-81.
Dread also made two free throws with 8.5 remaining to expand the lead to 87-81.
Toussaint then made a layup, but Penn State forward Lamar Stevens made two free throws with 3.6 left to finally secure the victory.
The Iowa players showed grit and resolve during Saturday's game when they very easily could’ve wilted under the heat and pressure, especially after Fredrick went down.
Fredrick is the third starter to miss time this season because of an injury. Nunge suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game, while Bohannon played in 10 games before shutting it down in December to have hip surgery.
Penn State had so much going for it heading into Saturday’s game, but then its two star players – Lamar Stevens and senior center Mike Watkins – both were in foul trouble and Iowa took advantage of that for much of the game.
Garza was virtually unstopped from late in the first half and then throughout the second half as he continues to perform at an All-America level. He did everything well in Saturday's game except for shooting free throws.
Wieskamp also performed at an elite in Saturday’s game, especially in the second half when it really mattered.
The game was moved from the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., to the Palestra at the request of Penn State, which was the home team.
The Palestra has a seating capacity of slightly less than 9,000 and all of the seats were filled for Saturday’s game, and mostly by Penn State fans.
The Bryce Jordan Center, on the other hand, seats more than 15,000 and is often half empty when Penn State plays there.
So from a home-court advantage standpoint, the switch to the Palestra probably helped Penn State.
It was also unseasonably warm in Philadelphia on Saturday, and that turned the the Palestra into a sauna, and made the playing surface slippery at times.
Fans were even brought to courtside to help provide some relief.
Fran McCaffery showed his appreciation for the moment by wearing cuff links that had a pieces of the Palestra floor in them. The cuff links were given to McCaffery by his wife, Margaret, and Fran said just moments before tip-off that he had to wear them.
Fran McCaffery also talked before the game about the importance of not letting the emotion from his homecoming affect his team’s play.
That was the mental challenge facing McCaffery and the players on Saturday.
The physical challenge was equally as daunting with Penn State ranked 21st in both polls and led by a veteran lineup.
Saturday’s game marked just the second time Iowa and Penn State have played with both teams ranked.
The first time came on Feb. 3, 1997 when No. 10 Penn State defeated No. 16 Iowa 95-87 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa has little time for rest with a road game at Nebraska up next on Tuesday, followed by a home game against Maryland next Friday.