EVANSTON — Luka Garza is as good as advertised.
A dominant performance from Iowa’s star big man coupled with a strong shooting night from Fran McCaffery’s Iowa Hawkeyes (11-5, 3-3 B1G) was too much for the Northwestern Wildcats (6-10, 1-5 B1G), who fell 75-62 Tuesday night in Evanston.
The Big Ten’s leading scorer finished with 27 points on a blistering 10-of-14 performance from the field, despite being held scoreless for a 25 minute stretch throughout the course of the game. The Hawkeyes were also aided by a 46 percent shooting mark from three-point range.
Miller Kopp led the way offensively for the ‘Cats, scoring 15 and shooting 5-17 from the field. Ryan Young, Robbie Beran, and Pete Nance added 8, 9, and 11 points respectively. The loss drops Northwestern back to the bottom of the Big Ten through six conference games.
The ‘Cats scored on their first two possessions of the game, a fast start matched by Iowa’s 6’11’’ big man. The Washington, D.C., native scored the Hawkeye’s first 10 points, prompting Chris Collins to switch to a zone defense. That switch, combined with some foul trouble for Garza, kept the Big Ten’s leading scorer empty-handed for the remainder of the first half.
Both sides also slammed some impressive dunks down early. First, C.J. Fredrick found Joe Wieskamp for an alley-oop with 13:12 on the clock. Frederick had 5 assists of Iowa’s 13 first-half assists. Then, an offensive rebound and nice hustle play from Kopp led to a massive put-back dunk from Nance, which pumped up both the Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd and Nance himself with 12:01 remaining.
However, following the sophomore’s left-handed throw down, the ‘Cats failed to convert a field goal for the next five minutes and found themselves tied at 21 going into the under-eight media timeout. The two teams traded leads as the Hawkeyes began to heat up from beyond the arc.
They went an astounding 8-of-15 from three in the half, helped by an impressive output from Valparaiso grad-transfer guard Bakari Evelyn, who greatly outperformed his 2.3 points per game average with eight in the opening frame.
Even in limiting Garza early on, the ‘Cats defense failed to be aggressive on the defensive end, forcing only one Iowa turnover in the opening period. The Hawkeyes led 41-35 going into the half, despite the ‘Cats grabbing 10 offensive rebounds and leading Iowa 11-2 on second chance points.
The second half commenced with offensive fouls to both team’s centers in the first 22 seconds, sending Young and Garza to the bench with three fouls each. Northwestern finally relinquished some offensive boards to the Hawkeyes, ceding three in the opening 90 seconds, and neither team could get the lid off the basket. All said, it was three very poorly played minutes of basketball.
Two Hawkeye turnovers led to a Robbie Beran three pointer to end the collective scoring drought. Some sloppy offense and some Ryan Young foul trouble, as well as a dominant stretch from another Iowa depth player, big man Ryan Kriener, forced Chris Collins to call a timeout with 11:45 remaining in the game.
And that is where the game, ultimately, turned.
Out of the timeout, Garza scored for the first time since then opening minutes of the contest with an authoritative and-1 over Jared Jones. He scored on the Hawkeye’s next two possessions to increase the lead further, exploiting the ‘Cats’ inability to defend him with Young on the bench. In response, Collins called his second timeout in a two-minute span to bring his center back despite his having four fouls.
It didn’t matter. Garza continued his dominance as he buried defender after defender in the post, scoring 14 straight points for the Hawkeyes and taking control of the game for good. The run even stretched things enough for Tino Malnati to get in at the very end, and ‘Cats fans at least got to see the senior walk-on man record an assist before the buzzer sounded on another disappointing loss.
Offensively, Robbie Beran led the way for the ‘Cats in the second half with nine points. Miller Kopp, after a 14-point first half, was limited offensively in the final 20 minutes, as he only added a single free throw with five minutes remaining in the game.
Iowa’s dominant interior presence on defense severely limited Northwestern’s scoring capability. Pat Spencer turned the ball over four times, and big man Ryan Young’s foul trouble limited his minutes and his effect on the outcome of the game. Coupled with Iowa’s lights-out three-point scoring, the ‘Cats were ultimately unable to hang around to make the contest close.
Next up for Northwestern is a trip to Champaign, where the Wildcats will take on a No. 24 Illinois team coming immediately off of being ranked for the first time since 2014.