IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jeff Horner’s 3-point shot kicked in on cue Tuesday night.
The senior, who became Iowa’s all-time leader in assists during the game, kept the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes in contention for a Big Ten title with a 66-54 victory over No. 16 Michigan State before a sellout crowd of 15,500 inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“My 3s went in tonight and I was the guy to step up tonight,” Horner said. “This team is playing together so well right now, and we’ve just got to keep that up.”
Horner and forward Greg Brunner paired up for 15-points apiece, getting the Hawkeyes out to a commanding lead midway through the second half to exact revenge on the team that handed Iowa a 30-point loss last month.
Horner, who went 5 of 9 from the field with four 3-pointers, nailed back-to-back treys that yielded a 51-43 Iowa advantage with just more than 10 minutes left in the second half.
“(Horner’s) just a special player,” said Iowa coach Steve Alford, whose fourth victory against the Spartans was his largest ever. “As I told him in the locker room, on the night where he breaks the career assist record, it might have been his best effort defensively.”
Michigan State responded with four straight to get within six, but another Horner 3-pointer and a fast-break by Adam Haluska got Iowa out to a 58-47 lead that left the Spartans (18-7, 6-5 Big Ten) in the dust.
“I don’t think it necessarily put them away,” Haluska, who had 11 points, said. “I just thought we made the right plays at the right times and came up with the stops when we needed them.”
The Hawkeyes (20-6, 9-3) stay atop the Big Ten standings, with a one-game lead over 12th-ranked Ohio State, which plays at Wisconsin on Wednesday. They opened up a two-and-a-half game gap between the Spartans, who had been tied with Illinois in fourth place.
“This was a separation game, and we needed to have some separation,” Alford said. “We separated ourselves from a very good team by two games with four games to play, and I think that was the key.”
Horner, who set the new career assists record at 577 — two better than Andre Woolridge from 1995-1997, said staying this high in league standings this late in the year for the first time since the 1981-1982 season, was “big.”
“I look at it that we’ve been 3-1 every four games, and hopefully we can just keep doing that,” the point guard said. “We don’t want to lose any games, but if we can just do that we’ll be all right.”
The Spartans, though, didn’t roll over. Michigan State opened the first half with an 8-2 run, and fought through a 30-26 halftime deficit in the second with a 10-4 run that gave them a 36-34 lead with 16:45 to play.
“That’s their stronghold,” Brunner said. “The beginning of each half they want to jump out on you and get a big lead. That’s what they did to us at their place, but tonight we were able to counter their run with our own.”
After falling behind by seven early in the first, the Hawkeyes scored nine straight, capped off by back-to-back dunks by Doug Thomas and Brunner, to take a two-point lead midway through the period.
Erek Hansen, who scored 13 points, sparked the second-half run with consecutive putbacks followed by two free throws by Brunner to regain a 43-37 advantage.
“We’ve been through a lot this year, and we’re not going to let an 8-2 run get us in a rut,” Horner said. “It seemed like Michigan State got a little tired out there, and we just capitalized off that.”
Haluska said Iowa’s offensive performance that regained control of the game in the second half forced Michigan State into taking bad shots, an assessment with which Coach Tom Izzo agreed.
“I’m disappointed right now because we can’t seem to find the basket right now worth anything,” he said. “That affects other parts of the game, and I think that’s what’s happening.”
Paul Davis led the Spartans with a game-high 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. But Shannon Brown, who had been averaging 20.3 points a game on the road in the Big Ten, was held to 12, going 6 of 16 from the field. For the game, the Spartans shot just 41.2 percent from the field.
“You play Michigan State, and you have 10 four-minute games, and if you can hold them to six or fewer points in eight of them, you’ll have a chance,” Alford said. “And I think we did that tonight.”
Iowa travels to Minnesota for a 3:35 CT tip-off on Saturday. Michigan State returns home that day to face in-state rival Michigan.
“We’re in the midst of a special journey,” Alford said. “I’m proud of our team, which has been battling like crazy with a lot of heat on them to make the tournament this time of year, and I think they’ve solidified that.
“I think they’re playing for something even more special — a conference championship in the best league in the country,” the coach added. “It’s going to be an incredible battle, but this was a big hurdle.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com