IOWA CITY, Iowa — After an inauspicious beginning where Eastern Washington jumped to a 4-0 lead, Pierre Pierce made a driving lay-up and got the call 90 seconds in and Iowa was well on its way to its 21st Gazette-Hawkeye Challenge championship Friday night inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Pierce got 6-of-15 to score a team-high 17 points and the Hawkeyes brushed off the Eagles 70-54 to advance and face Northern Illinois Saturday.
Iowa’s defense dominated play and held Eastern Washington to just 42 percent from the field. The Hawkeyes had 13 steals, five blocks and 25 defensive rebounds. The Eagles had but four second chance points.
“I thought tonight’s game was another good game for us defensively,” said Coach Steve Alford. “I thought we got a good lead, and we relaxed a little bit, especially at the free-throw line.”
The Hawkeyes hit 16-of-30 from the charity stripe and only sophomore point guard Jeff Horner was perfect at the line, going 3-for-3.
“I think getting there 30 times is something we want to do on our offense, but until we start making free throws, I think our offense is going to look uglier than it is,” Alford said.
“The coach can’t make free throws for us,” said offensive co-leader and Big Ten Player of the Week Greg Brunner. “We wish he could, considering he shot something like 99 percent in college. It would be easier if he could.”
Brunner went 7-of-10 from the field for 15 points, while snagging 10 rebounds and adding two steals and two assists. He leads the Big Ten Conference with a 74.3 field goal percentage and is fourth in blocked shots.
“I always knew what I was capable of doing,” Brunner said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team. A lot of people looked at me as a wasted scholarship, and I just used that as motivation.
“And when you have a good team, it opens things up for you, and coach did a good job preparing us,” he added.
Brunner stole the show away from returning senior forward Glen Worley, a Coralville, IA.-native, who he replaced after Worley broke his left hand. Worley played only seven minutes with bandages still covering his injury but still managed a basket.
“Glen’s a phenomenal player in my opinion, and he’s going to do great things here,” said Brunner.
But despite Brunner’s sterling endorsement, Alford said the North Iowa duo of Brunner (of Charles City, IA.) and Horner (of Mason City, IA.) would stay a central part of the team’s offensive attack.
“Greg’s done a great job of taking advantage of that window of opportunity. I think he’s playing as well as any player on our team,” said Alford. “We just have to keep riding that horse. We knew when we got him he was a terrific player, and I think he knows he has a long way to go. He’s a very unselfish player, as is Jeff. Those are two sophomores we’re going to ride for a long time.”
Horner went 4-of-8 from the field for 12 points. He had two rebounds, seven assists and one block and a steal in a team-high 34 minutes on the court.
“Jeff’s been terrific,” Alford said. “I thought he did a nice job defensively.”
The coach went on to say that freshman guard Mike Henderson of Waterloo, IA., has been Horner’s prot?g?, especially after a series in the final minute of the game where Henderson missed two free throws then fouled. Horner replaced Henderson, led the offense, drew the foul and made the last two points of the game from the line.
“Mike’s going to be a terrific player,” said Alford. “He’s just got to learn. He’s a better foul shooter than what he is, and he’s a better defender than missing two free throws and then fouling. That was really the message. Jeff did what I hoped he’d do. I was like, `Mike, there’s what I want you to do.'”
Iowa, now 5-0 on the year, faces Northern Illinois (2-2) Saturday at 8:11 p.m. inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com