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Holding down the fort: Iowa 76, Rutgers 65

Payton Sandfort scored 22 points in a wire-to-wire victory for the Hawkeyes

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes (10-6, 2-3) used a strong start in a “sleepy” Jersey Mike’s Arena RAC to get a huge road victory against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-5, 3-2), 76-65. Payton Sandfort led the way with 22 points on 6/8 shooting and 6/7 from the line as the Hawkeyes shot 12/27 from behind the arc.

Iowa dispelled a lot of the bad demons of the past three games by racing out to an 8-0 lead in front of an underwhelming-to-start crowd. Throughout the first half, the Hawkeyes were able to counter every little spurt the Scarlet Knights had on offense and regularly confounded them with their zone offense. The lead ballooned to 13 points a couple times in the first half after a Dasonte Bowen layup and cherry-picking Kris Murray dunk.

Filip Rebrača outplayed Clifford Omoruyi throughout and continued his own stretch of impressive stamina with 16 points, 12 rebounds, & thre blocks in 40 minutes, including 12 points in the first half to pace the Hawks. Omoruyi finished with 9 & 9.

It wasn’t without its drama though, as Murray & Connor McCaffery picked up their second fouls (both finished with two) within 30 seconds of each other with Iowa up just 34-30 at the time of Murray’s benching. The Hawkeyes stretched the lead with a lineup of Rebrača, Sandfort, Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, and Carter Kingsbury to 42-30 in a three-minute stretch which felt like it would never end as Rutgers went 0/6. It even featured a shot clock violation on a non-basket which feels like it always goes against Iowa with Caleb McConnell releasing a putback with 0.0 on the clock.

The second half featured more of the same as Iowa outscored Rutgers 12-4 in the first six minutes to go up 18 points - the most Rutgers has been down at home at any point in this season.

The Scarlet Knights were always going to have a run in them, as they got 13 straight to bring it to 55-50 before Payton Sandfort went NUCLEAR. His three-pointer with 8:34 to go got the lid off the basket which seemed to get Iowa’s defense back in rhythm - it’s easier to defend when the opponent has to take the ball out of the basket.

Another Sandfort three with 6:44 remaining pushed the lead back over 10 and he answered a Paul Mulcahy triple with one of his own. He answered a McConnell turnaround with a midrange jumper to get the lead to 12 just over four minutes remaining.

It proved to be enough distance, as Rutgers cut the lead to 6 and force a really bad McCaffery turnover. Thankfully Iowa secured the rebound off a missed Cam Spencer three and Ulis hit the ensuing free throws. Sandfort closed from the line, going 3/4 in the final minute to bring this one home.

Worth monitoring: with the game largely in hand, McCaffery went down when his head clipped Spencer’s shoulder on a screen in the backcourt. With Iowa not playing until Thursday, he’ll have a couple extra days if he needs to go through concussion protocol or simply recover.

On the whole - another huge win and one that had to feel especially good for Sandfort who was all smiles in his interview with Robbie Hummel* postgame. The kid has been through some trials this year with his shot leaving him and found it just in time.

* Hummel will be on tonight’s Purdue/Penn State broadcast at the Palestra. Hardest working man in show business

Iowa’s season writ large continues the upward trajectory which started earlier this week with the comeback victory over Indiana. No doubt the way that one played out was in the mind of Iowa’s guys as they know first hand those huge leads early don’t guarantee the win. At 2-3, the Hawkeyes seem to have returned to the mean a bit and with three straight at home can really build some momentum in the new year.