By John Bohnenkamp
INDIANAPOLIS — Fran McCaffery waved his hands to signal that the three digits on Iowa’s side of the scoreboard were enough.
There were 50 seconds left on the Gainbridge Fieldhouse clock in Iowa’s Big Ten Tournament second-round game Thursday against Northwestern. So McCaffery signaled once, and then again, to guard Austin Ash to hold on to the ball, run out the shot clock, and give the ball back to Northwestern, which certainly had had enough.
But Ash was still being hounded by the Wildcats’ defense, so he passed the ball to walk-on Luc Laketa, who decided to shoot as the shot clock was in its final ticks.
Laketa’s shot banked off the backboard and through the net, sending his teammates into full celebration and McCaffery into a glare.
Laketa’s shot provided the final three points of the Hawkeyes’ 112-76 win, and provided some laughter for his teammates.
Asked if Laketa got into some trouble after the game, Iowa freshman Payton Sandfort smiled.
“Yeah, he did a little bit,” Sandfort said, adding that Laketa had gotten a new nickname — ‘Logo Luc,’ given the length of the shot. “He’s such a good kid. He works hard, he’s such a good teammate. Coach was a little upset, but we weren’t.”
These Hawkeyes are having fun these days. It was Iowa’s ninth win in 11 games, and certainly the most impressive.
They led 17-4 after the first five minutes, 64-31 at halftime, and by as much as 40 points in the second half.
March situations generally don’t lend themselves to such blowouts, but when you shoot 67.6 percent from the field in the first half, 61.4 percent for the game, against a team that had played just 18 hours earlier and had to rally from a double-digit second-half deficit just to get to this round, it’s a recipe that Northwestern coach Chris Collins could easily figure out.
“They want to play,” Collins said. “They want to play a hundred-point game.”
Collins has seen this twice in the last couple of weeks. The Hawkeyes beat Northwestern 82-61 in Iowa City on February 28. The Wildcats were dealing with the flu bug that night.
This game made Collins even more queasy, and he thinks that more coaches around the conference, and around the nation starting with next week’s NCAA tournament, may feel the same way.
Collins watched Iowa sophomore forward Keegan Murray, a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten pick, score 26 points on his team in 20 minutes of court time. He saw sixth-year guard Jordan Bohannon hitting five 3-pointers from all sorts of long distance. And he saw the Hawkeyes make 19 3-pointers — 10 players had at least one.
“Like, this is going to be a tough out for anybody,” Collins said. “If they make 20 threes, though, you’re not going to beat them, obviously. Did we give up some open looks? Yes. But they also made … when Bohannon’s making 30-footers and those guys are shooting the way they are with what Keegan can do, it’s going to be very hard for anybody to beat them the way they played today.”
“Yeah, we can’t play much better than we played tonight, obviously,” McCaffery said. “Everything was clicking, our offense was really good.”
The Wildcats couldn’t keep up. They made 10 of their first 15 shots — and were down 38-24.
The Hawkeyes’ offensive fury was bait Northwestern couldn’t resist.
“I think sometimes you can get lured into this because you might even hit a few early,” Collins said. “And we made some shots, too, early in the game, but if you try to play that way with them, you’re not going to win.”
Iowa was pounding the boards — the Hawkeyes had a 45-18 rebounding edge. Sixteen offensive rebounds led to 16 points. Iowa had 25 fast-break points.
Iowa’s starters opened the game with a 17-4 run, and the players on the bench were just waiting for their chance.
“We saw the starters smoking them,” said Sandfort, who had three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points. “So we were like, ‘Why can’t we do that?’
“We came in firing. We got hot. Everybody was hot.”
Iowa broke four tournament records — total points, 3-pointers made, field goals made (43); and margin of victory (36).
It was this time last year when the Hawkeyes went into March with big hopes. They were a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and were knocked out in the second round by Oregon.
This team wasn’t expected to be where it is now, but Bohannon said that was fine. The Hawkeyes believed, and that’s all that mattered.
“I think we kept that same mentality and that edge that we had last year,” Bohannon said. “We were kind of playing with the underdog mentality, I guess that’s a little different from last year.
“We just have a lot of pieces that are flowing together and we’re going to continue to try to stay together the rest of the season.”
Collins thinks that season has a lot of games left for Iowa.
“We ran into an incredible buzzsaw,” Collins said, “and we never really had an answer.”
Photo: Luc Laketa advances Iowa’s name on the Big Ten Tournament bracket after Thursday’s win over Northwestern. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)