By John Bohnenkamp
The final points of the first half of Iowa’s 84-78 win over Michigan State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena came from Ahron Ulis.
The freshman guard, who came into Tuesday’s game having played just 68 minutes, 58 seconds this season, raced to the corner in front of the Spartans’ bench to corral the rebound of Luka Garza’s missed shot and was fouled by Michigan State’s Joshua Langford.
Ulis, a 93.9 percent free-throw shooter this season, made both free throws and Iowa went into halftime up 48-43.
When Garza talked about the play of Iowa’s reserves after the game, he went down a checklist of big plays, and Ulis’ hustle for the rebound was among those he mentioned.
“I’m proud of all of those guys,” said the senior center, who had 27 points and became the second player in program history to top 2,000 points for his career. “They did a tremendous job.”
The Hawkeyes haven’t beaten the Spartans much over the last few years — Michigan State had won the last five in the series, and 19 of the last 22.
But they won this one with players who have played key roles this season, even if they aren’t starters.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery used 11 players, and everyone scored at least two points and got at least one rebound.
The six players off the bench — Ulis, freshmen Keegan Murray, Patrick McCaffery and Tony Perkins, and sophomores Jack Nunge and Joe Toussaint — combined to play almost 90 minutes. They had 39 points and 19 of Iowa’s 38 rebounds. Toussaint was the only one with a turnover.
“We just have a team that can go deep in the bench and get productivity,” Fran McCaffery said. “We got rebounds, we got points, we got solid play, like no turnovers.”
In the closing minutes, Perkins, Murray and Nunge were on the floor, while veterans like Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp were on the bench, a sign of how much McCaffery trusted his depth.
“Today, I was just playing my game,” said Perkins, who played 13 minutes. “If I’m on the floor, I’m going to produce and help my team win.
“And that’s pretty much it.”
Garza has learned over his four seasons that McCaffery will ride what he thinks is his best lineup. It’s something Garza found out when he was a starter as a freshman, and he’s seen it over the years.
“Coach has always been like that,” Garza said. “If somebody’s playing well, playing better than a starter, they’re going to play. I think we have a really unselfish group. We want to win games. It’s a lot about who’s going, who’s not going.”
This is usually the point in the season when rotations get tighter. But the Hawkeyes started a stretch of four games in eight days, five games in the next 11. And with guard CJ Fredrick back in the starting lineup but still struggling with a lower leg injury, the rotation has to widen.
“It’s always an interesting … slippery slope, I guess,” McCaffery said. “You want your starters to be comfortable and confident that they’re going to consistently play a certain number of minutes and get a certain number of shots.”
The Spartans’ offense — they made their first six 3-pointers of the game and led by as much as 11 points — led McCaffery to search for different defensive combinations.
“I thought we got solid play from our starters,” McCaffery said. “But the bench came in and really provided energy and aggressiveness. We had that one lineup on the floor that just clicked.”
That lineup featured Garza and Nunge, veterans who have been together for a while, along with Patrick McCaffery, Toussaint and Perkins.
“It wasn’t like (before the game) like, ‘OK, I’m going to go with that lineup,’” Fran McCaffery said. “But that lineup was on the floor, that lineup played well together. We got the transition game going — Joe finds Patrick a couple of times.
“I think that’s what you need in this league. You’ve got to be able to do that.”
It was something that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo marveled at in his post-game press conference.
“Give them credit,” Izzo said. “They just kept throwing people at us.”
He pointed out how Bohannon, who hit the final four free throws to provide the final margin, played just 19 minutes.
“They just threw guard after guard after guard, and wore us down,” Izzo said.
Perkins said there’s a sense of pride among the reserves.
“We love coming off the bench and giving that energy,” he said. “When our team’s down and they need us to come in and give more energy, that’s what we do.”
“Nobody on the bench thinks of us as just being bench players,” Toussaint said. “We’re just other players who come in. Just having that confidence coming into the game, that’s a thing we hold for each other.”
Izzo was feisty after the game. The Spartans were called for 28 fouls, 12 of those drawn by Garza. The Hawkeyes made 23-of-35 free throws, compared to 10-of-15 for Michigan State.
The Spartans defended Garza like everyone else, with double-teams of all sorts of combinations. By the end of the night, Marcus Bingham Jr., had fouled out, and Aaron Henry, Joey Hauser and Thomas Kithier each had four fouls.
“We did everything except check a little better, and try to tackle a guy that sat in the lane for hours,” Izzo said.
Izzo wasn’t done, saying later about the Hawkeyes, “They just drove us and went to the free-throw line. Jump into you, drive you, foul you, foul you. Every time you touched the big guy, there was a foul. I didn’t appreciate that. But, we’ve got to do a better job, so I have to do a better job.”
“Tom’s got an abundance of bigs he can rotate fresh bodies on Luka,” McCaffery said. “And he’s got a multitude of fouls (to give).”
The Hawkeyes moved to 7-3 in the Big Ten. 1 1/2 games behind Michigan, which sits idle because of COVID-19 issues on its campus. They’re tied for third place with Ohio State and Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes come to Iowa City on Thursday.
It will be a game in which McCaffery likely will have to use his bench again. In an unpredictable season, where a schedule can get crunched and you’re going to need that flexibility, he knows the options he has know how to make plays.
“Anticipating the quality of the opponent on Thursday, and every game after that, that’s what you need,” McCaffery said.
Photo: Iowa’s Joe Toussaint drives the ball down court as teammate Patrick McCaffery follows. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)