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IOWA CITY − The Iowa men's basketball team entered Tuesday night's game against Georgia Tech with one goal: Get back on track.
The last time the Hawkeyes were on the court resulted in a disappointing 13-point loss to TCU on Saturday. The team stressed the importance of flushing one bad game and not letting it compound into a losing streak.
They returned home on Tuesday as a part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, aiming to seize some momentum ahead of next week's monster showdown against Duke. It wasn't the Hawkeyes' prettiest performance but another career night by its best player paced them to a double-digit victory. Behind Kris Murray's double career high (31 points, 20 rebounds), Iowa defeated Georgia Teach 81-65 for its sixth win of the season and No. 499 for head coach Fran McCaffery.
Murray's performance on Tuesday took center stage as he became the first Hawkeye since Bruce King in 1977 to record 30 points in 20 rebounds in one game. His previous two games were forgettable (4-of-17 shooting against Clemson and 4-of-14 shooting against TCU) and he was looking to come out aggressively on Tuesday.
"I feel like I was letting the game come to me tonight," Murray said. "I hit open shots and knew I had mismatches (in the paint) so we definitely wanted to take advantage of that. And also (rebounding well), that's one thing that we took away from (last weekend's Emerald Coast Classic) so I made sure to make a point of that."
Iowa recorded six offensive rebounds in the game's first four minutes. With 13:47 remaining in the first half, nine of the team's 14 points came off of second-chance opportunities. By the end of the first half, Iowa outrebounded Georgia Tech by a 29-17 margin, including 14 offensive rebounds. For the game, Iowa bounced back from a -13 rebounding margin against TCU with a decisive +9 edge on Tuesday night.
Murray was the catalyst behind those rebounding efforts and the Hawkeyes' overall performance.
"His game has evolved," McCaffery said. "He's way more comfortable whether it's making plays off the dribble, whether it's posting up, playing in transition, playing against zone or against smaller, quicker guys or bigger, more physical guys. He's been through it now. Last year was a really good year for him. Played a little bit the year before, but his body also grew. He's in a great place."
McCaffery opted for a new starting lineup on Tuesday night, inserting junior Ahron Ulis at point guard and moving sophomore Payton Sandfort to the bench. After the game, McCaffery explained the decision to shake up the starting unit.
"I hate doing that after a loss because I never want the message to be 'Let's blame it on Payton,'" McCaffery said. "I thought it would really help him and he came in firing, which is what I want him to do, and he was moving without the ball. I needed to get him more minutes (14 minutes logged) and that's on me. I'll get him more minutes the next game."
The Hawkeyes carried an 11-point lead into halftime but Georgia Tech opened the second half on a 7-0 run in less than two minutes, prompting McCaffery to make quick substitutions to inject a spark into the lineup. From that point on, about the 17-minute mark, the Hawkeyes settled down enough to regain control of the contest. Led by Murray's 16 second-half points, Iowa shot 52% from the field while holding Georgia Tech to 39%, including a stretch in which Tech didn't score a field goal for more than four minutes.
McCaffery opted for experience after halftime. Only seven Hawkeyes played second-half minutes, and the six who logged double-digit minutes were juniors or older: Murray, Connor McCaffery, Patrick McCaffery, Tony Perkins, Filip Rebraca and Ulis. The two seniors, Connor McCaffery (10 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists) and Rebraca (13 points, 7 rebounds) were the two biggest secondary contributors on Tuesday night.
But coach McCaffery tempered the need for veteran experience on the court with the importance of continuing to give valuable minutes to the younger players on the team. Minute distribution will be something to watch over the next few games as Iowa is set to face its toughest competition yet this season.
"I think (experience) is important, especially in a game like this," McCaffery said. The disappointing thing is I need to get Sandfort more minutes, I need to get (Dasonte) Bowen more minutes, I need to get Josh Dix more minutes, I need to get (Josh) Ogundele more minutes ... I always struggle with if a guy is playing well enough to earn playing time, I like to give it to them."
Iowa will have a six-day break before its Jimmy V Classic showdown with Duke in New York City next Tuesday, and it's coming at an opportune time. Perkins and other players need the rest to nurse nagging injuries, and the break will give the team time to correct execution errors on offense and work through its recent shooting slump (35% from three-point range and 58% from the free-throw line vs. Georgia Tech).
But the Hawkeyes' 6-1 start to the 2022-23 season is about as good as Fran McCaffery and fans could have hoped for. Beginning next week is a three-game stretch against strong Power 5 opponents: Duke, Iowa State and Wisconsin. Iowa has proven early on that it's capable of winning without its best effort, but that's exactly what's needed in order to build its NCAA Tournament resume with a few Quad 1 wins.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Kris Murray tallies 31 points, 20 rebounds in Iowa win vs Georgia Tech