IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jeff Horner wasn’t expecting most valuable player honors Saturday night after his season-high 19 points led 14th-ranked Iowa to the championship of the Hawkeye Challenge.
But the senior, who’s been struggling offensively, found just enough of the “little things” to keep his team together and victorious after a difficult stretch.
“I’ve been struggling so badly shooting, you have to find other ways to help your team,” the point guard said. “I didn’t think I deserved it. A lot of teammates stepped up tonight.”
The Hawkeyes downed Valparaiso, 72-59, before the 9,804 fans who braved blizzard-like conditions to watch Iowa’s 20th-straight championship. The Hawkeyes, who improved to 7-1 overall, hold a 47-1 record in their own tournament.
“To get through eight games, to have seven wins, and to be ranked in the top 15, I thought our guys have done a lot of good things,” Iowa Coach Steve Alford said. “The neat thing about it is that we’re in that position where we’ve got a long way to go as far as improving.
“That’s nice to know. I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching what we’re capable of reaching. We’re pretty excited about it,” Alford added.
Dan Oppland led the Crusaders with a game-high 23 points on 11-of-19 shooting and seven rebounds, as Valparaiso (3-1) twice got to within three points of the Hawkeyes early in the second half.
After an Oppland layup narrowed Iowa’s lead to 38-35, Mike Henderson led a 9-2 run, scoring seven points in the stretch that forced the Crusaders to call a timeout with 13 minutes, 29 seconds remaining.
Henderson scored 15 points, going 5 of 6 from the field and 4 of 5 at the line. His scored again with 5:40 left to put Iowa up by 13-points and make a Valparaiso comeback impossible.
“We were going a little a stagnant at that time, and I was trying to create with my penetration,” the junior guard said. “Whether I was getting open or I could help open someone else up, I tried to contribute that way.”
Adam Haluska, who was the third Hawkeye in double digits with 14 points, said Henderson performed to his capability.
“We know that Mikey can play like that,” he said. “When he takes it to the hoop, he can get around anybody. It was big time for him to step up like that.”
Valparaiso couldn’t rebound through the remainder of the half, with the Hawkeyes maintaining at least a nine-point lead most of the way.
“I think we’ve done a great job canceling runs and going on our own mini-runs,” forward Greg Brunner said. “I think a bunch of players stepped up tonight when they needed to and did a great job.”
Crusader Coach Homer Drew said his team lacked consistency.
“Our decision-making wasn’t good a couple of times,” he said. “If we could have made a couple of better decisions on offensive and defense then we could have made it closer.
“We lost to a very, very good basketball team.”
Henderson had a four-game drought since his last 15-point performance, against then-No. 7 Kentucky in the semifinals of the Guardians Classic, something he reckoned was a mental issue.
“Mentally, the last couple of games, I wasn’t into it. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to play, but I couldn’t get into a groove,” he said. “Tonight I just played relaxed and let the game come to me. Things just began to happen out there.”
Alford agreed with Henderson’s self-assessment.
“If we can get another guard that gives us that kind of lift, it’s big,” the coach said. “I don’t want to go every fifth game. We’ve got to find that consistency. I thought he was very relaxed defensively. I thought he was a big key for us.”
Henderson gets the opportunity to return to his native Waterloo, IA, Tuesday as Iowa will face in-state rival Northern Iowa at 7:05 p.m. in the UNI Dome.
Fairfield, which lost to Iowa 75-59 Friday, earned its first win of the season Saturday in the early game of the Challenge to take third place.
Terrence Todd scored a season-high 18 points, all in the second half, to help the Stags (1-4) post an 80-68 victory against Tulane. Andrew Garcia led the Green Wave (1-4) with 18 points and six assists.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com