Patrick McCaffery, Keegan Murray provide spark off the bench in Iowa’s season-opening victory

Both players entered the game midway through the first half and provided the Hawkeyes with the energy needed to put their opponent away.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

The Iowa men’s basketball team won its first game since March on Wednesday. The long wait for the 2020-21 season to tip off ended at 3 p.m., but the effects of the pandemic were still very apparent throughout the game.

Coaches and officials wore masks throughout the entire game, players were spaced out in chairs rather than seated close together on the bench, and the only spectators in attendance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena were family members of the players on the court.

The circumstances were different than ever, but the No. 5 Hawkeyes defeated N.C. Central, 97-67, to begin their highly-anticipated season.

“We’ve got to create our own energy,” Iowa center Luka Garza said. “And I think for me as a basketball player, I have no problem doing that. I play with the same intensity level whether I’m playing at LA Fitness or whether I’m playing in front of 15,000 fans. That’s the mentality our team needs to have.”

The last time Iowa was going to take the court, the remainder of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament was canceled on March 12 as the pandemic started to shut down sports across the country.

Eight months later, Garza, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and the favorite for National Player of the Year this season, returned to the court and was as dominant as ever. The senior who opted to return to Iowa rather than enter the NBA Draft scored 26 points (11-of-14 shooting) and recorded 10 rebounds, three blocks, and two steals in the season opener.

In the second half, Garza converted on a step back fadeaway that resembled the routine move of NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki. After sinking the shot, Garza smiled at stands that would usually be filled with Hawkeye fans.

“No matter where he shoots it from,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said, “whether it’s a faceup jumper, a fadeaway, a stepback three, a pick-and-pop three, a pick and roll, scoring in traffic — whenever it leaves his hand you’re surprised when it doesn’t go in.”

Iowa was expected to dominate N.C. Central, but it took some time for the Hawkeyes to get into a rhythm.

The Eagles controlled the tempo early and led 8-6 at the first media timeout. The game remained close for most of the early portion of the first half. Redshirt freshman Patrick McCaffery and true freshman Keegan Murray entered the game midway through the first half, and provided Garza and company with a boost off the bench.

Toward the end of the first half, Iowa went on a 20-2 run to all but seal a victory.

“I think they made a tremendous impact on the game with their energy level,” Fran McCaffery said. “They both got to the offensive glass, they both ran the floor in transition. And defensively they were active. They played like veterans. And quite frankly I expect that from both of them.”

Patrick McCaffery missed all but two games last season with residual health issues related to his previous battle with cancer. In his 2020 debut, with about 25 pounds of weight added to his frame, the Iowa City native manned the front of Iowa’s press and was active near the glass.

Murray, in his first ever minutes in the Black and Gold, was a threat from deep, knocking down back-to-back 3’s in the second half.

Patrick McCaffery finished as Iowa’s second-leading scorer with 16 points, and Murray added 12. Iowa earned win No. 1 of the season on Wednesday, the first of many expected this season.

The former high school rivals contributing when needed will be key for the Hawkeyes to achieve their lofty goals this season.

“I just wanted to go out there and provide a little energy, be a little spark plug off the bench,” Patrick McCaffery said. “I feel like that’s my role on this team. Get those baskets on breaks, get offensive rebounds — just provide a spark. That’s what I was trying to do.”

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