By Michael Hemmerle | @MichaelHemmerle
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – He had entered the game in the first half, part of a flurry of Iowa substitutions that made freshman Payton Sandfort easy to miss.
He had averaged 5.0 points in his freshman season and went scoreless in 10 games. Sandfort had double-figure games against non-league opponents Alabama State, Western Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana and Western Illinois. He had scored 12 against Nebraska and 13 in the second-round rout of Northwestern.
None of those moments came close to yesterday, the championship game of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament, with the score tied 51-51. When Sandfort made a 3-point shot to put the Hawkeyes ahead, teammate Jordan Bohannon could not believe what he saw next.
“He hit that first 3 and was celebrating,” Bohannon said. “He looked at the bench and after he came back down the court, I was like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you celebrating? You’re going to hit another one, get ready for your shot.’ And the next possession he hit another 3.”
That was with 8:25 to play, 31 seconds after his first 3-point shot, and suddenly Sandfort had given the Hawkeyes a 57-51 lead.
On an afternoon marked by the struggles of sophomore forward Keegan Murray, who made six of 16 shots and scored 19 points, it was the supporting cast that helped Iowa win the Big Ten tournament championship.
Iowa’s 29-20 advantage in bench scoring matched the margin of victory in the championship game.
Sandfort scored 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, his third-highest point total in the last 20 games.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery acknowledged Sandfort’s impact on the game, and impact of role players on the outcome.
“He’s a tremendous player, he rebounds, he shoots, he makes plays for other people, and he’s fearless,” McCaffery said. “That’s the kind of team we have.”
In the previous three games for Iowa, Keegan Murray was the engine for the Hawkeye offense, as he averaged 28 points in that stretch, resulting in him being awarded the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. After a dominant 32-point performance against the Indiana Hoosiers in the semifinals, Murray made only three shots from beyond the arc.
Contributions from sophomore guard Tony Perkins were impactful, as his 11 points, four rebounds and four assists helped stop Iowa droughts. But it was his effort in guarding Jaden Ivey that prevented the Purdue star from ever getting in an offensive rhythm. “Fearless” was the word McCaffery chose to describe Perkins.
He discussed other key contributions from players. “Patrick (McCaffery) hit a big three,” the coach said. “Joe Toussaint was amazing on both ends, Kris (Murray) and Filip (Rebraca) were great and were phenomenal defensively despite the foul trouble. Kris was aggressive offensively.”
Patrick McCaffery had six points. Filip Rebraca tallied three points and two rebounds, while Kris Murray had eight points with two rebounds to help the Hawkeyes win the tournament title. Iowa’s effort was clear, as the Hawkeyes forced 17 Purdue turnovers. The win gave the Hawkeyes their first conference tournament crown since 2006 and their third overall in a run that will be remembered by Iowa fans for years.