IOWA CITY, Iowa — Before Saturday’s game against Northwestern, Head Coach Steve Alford told his team the matchup was a must-win in order to stay competitive for the NCAA Tournament. His players responded with a 64-54 victory over the Wildcats inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I had to make absolutely sure that they understood that,” Alford said. “You just can’t assume anything in this business. I didn’t want to assume they didn’t know that. I told them that’s part of college athletics. You’ve got to deal with pressure.”
Sophomore Adam Haluska, who scored a game-high 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting, had a game-high eight rebounds, and a game-high five assists, said his team understood its coach’s instructions.
“I think this team came out tonight and really played with some urgency and it was a great team win,” he said. “It was a big win. We’ve got to get wins and we have to play hard. We have to do whatever it takes to get into that tournament, and the more wins the better off we are.”
Iowa (16-7, 4-6 Big Ten) got strong performances from its reserve players, including senior Jack Brownlee who saw his most significant minutes of the season in a six-minute stretch relieving Jeff Horner. But the Hawkeyes’ starting five really combined to make the difference.
Greg Brunner scored 16 points, Horner put in 11, Mike Henderson scored eight, tying his season’s best, and Alex Thompson scored five in his first start of the season.
“There was a lot of pressure on this game, and we have a lot of young kids. And that was our concern,” Alford said. “We really tried to ease some of that pressure from them and yet still stay disciplined to where they got to know what’s got to do. And that’s sometimes a tricky balance.”
It was a real tricky balance in the first half.
The back-and-forth pace of the first was enough to give a person motion sickness. The lead changed five times, and there were seven ties.
Turnovers plagued both teams. Northwestern’s Vedran Vukusic had three steals and Michael Jenkins had two. Both had five points, but Davor Duvancic paced the Wildcats (11-12, 4-7) with six points.
Vukusic had a team-high 11 points and seven rebounds with five steals for the game.
After Haluska nailed a 3-pointer to tie it up at 24 apiece, though, Iowa launched a 17-2 run to close the first half. The Hawkeyes scored 12-straight points, led by Brunner who had eight in the stretch.
Brunner had 16 points for the first half on 6 of 10 shooting, hitting three 3-pointers. Haluska had 13 on 5 of 6 shooting and going 3 of 3 on 3-pointers. Both had two steals apiece.
“Haluska was much more aggressive,” Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody said. “He’s getting more shots now. He’s a good player, and a difficult matchup for our team.”
Alford said Haluska’s becoming a “go-to guy.”
“He’s a potent player, and he’s a very athletic kid. I think he’s starting to gain some momentum and some confidence,” the coach said. “We’re going to need him down the stretch.”
Iowa led at the half, 39-26.
It was the Wildcats’ turn out of the gates in the second half, however. Northwestern scored nine straight, as Iowa struggled on its own side giving up a shot-clock violation in the first two minutes.
The run cut the Hawkeyes’ lead to four and forced them into calling a timeout with 17 minutes to play.
The break did Iowa good, and the Hawkeyes went on a 16-5 run while Northwestern was held without a basket for 4 ½ minutes in the stretch.
“It just didn’t seem like we could get there,” Carmody said. “I thought we could too.”
Iowa got out to as much as a 17-point lead in the half after the momentary hiccup, and Haluska said it was a matter of getting out of Northwestern’s pace of the game that snapped the drought.
“We were really stagnant out there, and just get us out of their pace because they were really controlling the game,” he said. “And once we did that we were on a roll again, and I think we had control the rest of the game.”
Henderson said Alford reminded his team of the 13-point lead it had in the final minutes of its first contest against Northwestern – a game that Iowa lost in overtime, 75-74.
“We were up by 13 with two minutes at their place, and they made the late run and ended up winning it,” the sophomore said. “He just kind of told us that if we wanted to turn it over to them, go ahead. He gave us the whole speech and we came out and executed.”
The Hawkeyes will have to execute again on Wednesday, traveling to Purdue for a 7 p.m. game.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com