IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa found itself behind by nine points midway through second half here Sunday. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was eerily quiet as the young Hawkeyes appeared headed for another tough defeat.
Dom Uhl stepped to the foul line. Iowa’s junior forward hadn’t had much to get excited about this season despite being one of its few experienced players.
The German native calmly knocked down both free throws. It seemed to relax and spark the Hawkeyes, who finished the game on a 24-11 run for a 68-62 victory in front of an announced crowd of 11,347.
Iowa’s defense locked down the Scarlet Knights during the final eight minutes with a half-court trap that dropped into a 3-2 zone. Uhl sat at the rim, where he blocked a career-best five shots to go with a season-high 10 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes.
Uhl logged just six minutes in Thursday’s double-overtime loss at Nebraska. Instead of sulking, he responded.
“I should have played him more in the second half the other night…He could have hung his head, he had a terrific practice yesterday, I just thought he earned the opportunity to get more minutes and that’s the reason we won (Sunday),” Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery said.
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Outside of senior captain Peter Jok, who led Iowa with 18 points against Rutgers, Uhl was the most experienced player returning to a team that starts four freshmen. However, prior to Sunday, his game, for the most part, seemed pedestrian. He was averaging 4.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in 16.0 minutes a game, falling behind underclassmen Nicholas Baer, Ahmad Wagner, Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl in the rotation.
Sunday, in crunch time, he delivered key plays time and again with Cook and Wagner watching.
“I just tried to bring energy off the bench defensively, offensively as well. I think the zone helped us at the end,” said the 6-foot-9, 217-pound Uhl, a man of few words.
Uhl showed up to the arena two hours early Sunday to work on his shooting. That showed something to his head coach.
“That’s the professionalism that you always hope to have on your team. It would have been real easy for him to get mad at me and make excuses. He just kept working. He’s here two hours early and working and he whacks a three as soon as we put him in,” McCaffery said.
Uhl didn’t consider being mad at McCaffery for limiting his minutes to 34 total through the team’s first three conference games. He knew that wouldn’t change his position.
“It doesn’t really help. I can be mad all I want. He’s the coach. He makes the decisions,” Uhl said.
Rutgers (11-6 overall, 0-4 Big Ten) was having its way in the paint during the first half. The visitors held a 22-10 advantage in that area before the break. Their guards would penetrate, taking it all the way to the rim for baskets or dishing it off to post players for easy buckets.
Uhl helped Pemsl (three blocks) and Baer protect the basket during the comeback. The Scarlet Knights outscored the home team just 18-16 in the paint after the intermission.
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“We did a better job guarding dribble penetration in the zone, and not bumping unnecessarily, staying matched. And then talling up when the penetration came. So you’re not putting them on the free-throw line,” McCaffery said.
Rutgers missed six of their last seven shots. The only make came on a three-pointer launched by power forward Deshawn Freeman at the final horn.
Uhl’s activity on both ends of the floor seemed contagious for the young Hawkeyes (10-7, 2-2).
“He was awesome right from the start,” said Pemsl, who finished with 13 points and two rebounds. “He came out and he was aggressive. He was passing, shooting, defending. He had some huge blocks down the stretch. He did everything he needed to do to help us win.”
Uhl and McCaffery both feel like Sunday’s performance could spark the laid-back junior moving forward. The coach views him as a valuable piece to the team.
“We play him at 3, 4, and 5. And he’s always in the right place. And that’s a lot harder than people think. Some guys just can’t do that. They just can’t. Even though they have the ability to play three positions, they just can’t remember three positions and they’re infective. So they end up being poor at all three of them rather than good at one of them. But he can equally do all three and it doesn’t seem to be a problem for him,” McCaffery said.
Uhl and the Hawkeyes return to action Thursday when they play host to No. 20 Purdue, which beat them, 89-67, Dec. 28 in West Lafayette.