IOWA CITY, Iowa — Junior Pierre Pierce scored a season-high 19 points as No. 23 Iowa’s defense stepped up and defeated Centenary, 88-53, Friday night in the first round of the Gazette Hawkeye Challenge.
Pierce went 8 of 15 for the game, grabbed five rebounds and three assists and also a season-high five steals but was only 2 of 5 at the free throw line. The co-captain has gone 3 of 16 from the charity stripe in the last four games.
“Pierre just finds the way of getting it done and it’s not always the prettiest, but he finds a way to get it done and he’s a winner,” Head Coach Steve Alford said. “We’re going to keep going to him.”
Pierce guarded Jarmorrow Moragne, who was the Gents’ leading guard going into the game, and he limited the 6-foot-5 senior to five points.
The Hawkeye defense limited the Gents (0-4) to 32 percent for the game, which was a step in the right direction for Alford.
“I thought we guarded the shot a lot better,” Alford said. “I thought we really got our hands up and were in the passing lanes more. We had three charges, and we out-rebounded them and we gave them 12 second shots and I think those were late.”
And the coach, whose team had averaged 16 turnovers in the first five games, also praised the nine turnovers Iowa (5-1) had on Friday night.
“We had nine turnovers, and that has nothing to do with the other end, but it does help your defense when you’re turning the ball over nine times as opposed to 19 times – that’s 10 less times you have to play defense,” Alford said. “And talking about our defense, we talked about taking care of the ball and you’re not going to have to guard as much.
“I just thought our attention defensively to what we were trying to do; we were just very concentrated defensively. Our post defense was better, and we had no foul trouble tonight so we defended without guarding and so those are the things that I thought came to mind,” he added.
With two 3-pointers by Tyrone Hamilton and one apiece from Cody Hopkins and Moragne, Centenary kept in the game through the first half and managed to tie the game at 17 with 11 minutes to play.
Adam Haluska picked up a quick two fouls in the first 2 ½ minutes of play, bringing freshman Carlton Reed off the bench. But after a five-minute rest, the sophomore transfer hit two 3-pointers that broke the 17-17 tie and gave the Hawkeyes a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Led by 11 points by Pierce and six apiece by Haluska, Jeff Horner, Greg Brunner and Doug Thomas, Iowa pulled out to 38-26 lead by halftime.
“It was definitely a good defensive performance for us tonight, which was one of our goals,” Horner said. “We started out not so hot in the first half and then we came out in the second half and kind of put it to them.”
The Gents kept the lead to 13 in the first five minutes of the second half, but Pierce nailed a jumper and sparked a 14-2 run. Iowa got out to as much as a 35-point lead in the last quarter of play.
The Hawkeyes shot 55 percent from the field and were also energized by 14 points out of Brunner, who went 6 of 7 from the field and grabbed six rebounds.
Alford said he had looked for more out of Brunner, and he got it on Friday.
“I thought he was real active, and he misses one shot and he got six rebounds in 21 minutes,” the coach said. “He was much more active defensively. And of our captains he’s probably the most vocal, and he really did a good job of talking.”
Brunner’s six rebounds were two more than Horner’s, who had led the 6-7 power forward in boards prior to the game.
“After the game we both looked at the stats and now I’m tied with him, and that whole thing is out the way,” Brunner said. “I told him to stay at his level because this is when I start to pick up my game. He won’t even come close.”
The point guard begged to differ.
“That’s OK,” Horner jokingly said. “I’ll get him tomorrow.”
Horner hit just 3 of 5 for nine points, despite averaging a team-high 18.8 a game coming into the matchup. But that didn’t bother Alford at all.
“I thought our three captains were very unselfish and did a lot of good things,” he said. “Jeff made the extra pass all night long. He really distributed the ball well, and that’s good to see.”
UNC-Greensboro 79, Southern Mississippi 78
In the first game of the Challenge, UNC-Greensboro took down Southern Mississippi, 79-78, on a last-second free throw by Ricky Hickman.
The Golden Eagles battled back from a seven-point deficit with seven minutes to play with the help of two 3-pointers off of Solomon Brown. Brown had a team-high 25 points, going 7 of 11 and recording eight rebounds.
Jasper Johnson came off the bench for 19 points and nine rebounds. But neither scorer had enough to hold off UNC-Greensboro.
The sophomore, Hickman, and senior Ronnie Burrell scored the last 23 points in the final 10:44 of the game for the Spartans. Hickman had a game-high 29 points going 8 of 17, and Burrell had 27 on 10 of 15.
Coach Alford said it’ll be a late night of prep for the coaches prior to the championship game.
“We’ll watch the game film tonight and it’ll be a long night of prep with the coaches,” he said. “From what I saw there are some good athletes out there. So their kids know how to win, and they’re playing very well.”
Iowa will take on the Spartans in the championship game of the Challenge at 8:11 p.m. Saturday night. The Hawkeyes are going for their 22nd title and their 19th-straight.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com