Hawkeyes eye double-bye ahead of Big Ten Tournament

Iowa pulled off a big win at home over Penn State on Saturday, keeping a double-bye for the Big Ten Tournament within reach.

Members+of+the+Iowa+Hawkeyes+celebrate+during+a+men%E2%80%99s+basketball+game+between+Iowa+and+Penn+State+on+Saturday%2C+Feb.+29+at+Carver-Hawkeye+Arena.+The+Hawkeyes+defeated+the+Nittany+Lions+77-68.+%28Nichole+Harris%2FThe+Daily+Iowan%29

Nichole Harris

Members of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate during a men’s basketball game between Iowa and Penn State on Saturday, Feb. 29 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes defeated the Nittany Lions 77-68. (Nichole Harris/The Daily Iowan)

Pete Ruden, Pregame Editor

Iowa basketball’s battle against Penn State on Saturday resembled a Big Ten football game.

11 a.m. on a Saturday. Chilly weather before tip. Physical. Electric. A lot on the line.

But this time, the Hawkeyes pulled off the victory, toppling the Nittany Lions 77-68 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena to split the season series.

The win in the face of one of the most physical teams in the Big Ten made the Hawkeyes look ready for the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

“I think we’re a really confident group right now,” Iowa senior forward Ryan Kriener said. “We know we can play with anybody, and that’s something you need this time of year. You can’t go in timid. You can’t go in thinking you’re going to lose. You got to have the confidence to be able to pull it out.”

The contest proved to be much more than a regular Big Ten matchup early. After all, it had to live up to the hype following Penn State’s 89-86 victory over the Hawkeyes in the Palestra on Jan. 4.

After the Nittany Lions took an early lead, the Hawkeyes held a one-point advantage by the time halftime came around.

The next stretch was pivotal.

Iowa began the second half on a 12-3 run, forcing Penn State head coach Pat Chambers to call a timeout after scoring on its first three possessions.

The Hawkeyes never looked back, getting their lead up to as high as 16 before the final buzzer sounded.

“I think it was really important because a lot of people [were] involved,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “It gave us a little bit of a cushion, and I think it really set up how we played defense in the second half — much better, much more connected.”

Even when Iowa found its rhythm, the physicality and intensity never slowed down. That led to technical fouls for Nittany Lions Jamari Wheeler and Mike Watkins and four easy free throws for Joe Wieskamp.

Luka Garza continued to fight through the aggression. The national player of the year candidate finished with 25 points on 11-of-27 shooting and 17 rebounds.

“It was a physical game; that’s what the Big Ten’s like, but today was a little more physical,” Garza said. “I embrace that part of basketball and the physicality. I love that, so it was definitely a lot of fun.”

Now, Iowa has something important on its mind heading into its final two games of the season: a double-bye for the Big Ten Tournament.

When their game finished on Saturday, the Hawkeyes sat half a game out of second place in the conference, with the extra day of rest within reach.

If Iowa can snag it, the benefits could go a long way.

“We want to get this [win against Purdue] on Tuesday, but it’s definitely in the back of our minds,” Wieskamp said. “Getting that double-bye would be huge for us. Every team in the Big Ten wants that. It’s just a huge advantage, obviously, saving your legs a little bit, moving yourself that much farther into the tournament.”

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