By John Bohnenkamp
Ahron Ulis used his first season at Iowa to watch how players like Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp performed, particularly in the second halves of games.
Now it’s Ulis’ turn to be on the floor in key moments for the Hawkeyes.
Ulis played 15 1/2 minutes in the second half of Sunday’s 71-59 win over Minnesota. That came after he played both overtimes plus 6:44 of the second half in the 90-86 loss at Penn State.
It’s an opportunity the sophomore point guard has wanted.
“I just wanted to come into the season and have a bigger role, being in the game when it matters,” Ulis said after Sunday’s game.
Ulis played just 119 minutes in 17 games last season. His role has grown this year — he’s played in every game, averaging 16.4 minutes.
“Coming into a bigger role, having to play more minutes, it’s made me more experienced learning more on the court,” Ulis said. “The second half is clutch time, so it’s about being a better player on the court.”
Defense has been a big reason behind why Ulis has played in late-game situations. He drew the assignment of guarding Minnesota’s Payton Willis in the second half of Sunday’s. Willis had 16 points in the game, but had just five in the second half.
“Payton’s a tough cover,” said Iowa assistant coach Billy Taylor, who was acting head coach for Sunday’s game. “Ahron Ulis was kind of a hero with his defensive effort.”
“He’s a really good defender on the ball,” Iowa forward Keegan Murray said of Ulis. “You saw that with him getting steals, getting out in transition.”
Ulis also hit a critical 3-pointer during Iowa’s 13-2 run midway through the second half that gave the Hawkeyes a 64-51 lead.
“It’s just coming out with more confidence, not being hesitant in my play,” Ulis said. “Turn defense into offense, and just come out and play my game.”
“He’s a point guard who can really control the pace of the game,” Murray said. “He’s a guy who once he gets confidence keeps being confident. That’s one of the great things about him.”
Ulis’ emergence has allowed the Hawkeyes to use their deep backcourt — Ulis, Jordan Bohannon, Tony Perkins and Joe Toussaint — in different ways.
“Whether it’s Jordan, Ahron, Joe Toussaint, Tony Perkins, those four guards have the ability to play on or off the ball and play with different combinations of people,” Taylor said. “Whether it is Ahron Ulis at the point and Bohannon at the 2, Bohannon at the 1 and Ulis is at the 2, or Tony at the 2, or Joe T is in with Ulis and whoever is on the ball. That kind of flexibility makes our offense a little more dynamic. We’re not relying on one guy to kind of be the primary ball-handler/decision-maker.”
The lessons learned by Ulis last season have paid off.
“We had great players,” Ulis said. “It was seeing those players execute on the court, and knowing that in a Big Ten college game you have to go out and execute to win games in clutch time.”
Photo: Iowa’s Ahron Ulis drives to the basket in Sunday’s win over Minnesota. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)