IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)—Iowa coach Steve Alford was beginning to wonder if his team would ever get his message about the difference better free throw shooting could make.
The Hawkeyes figured it out Wednesday night, turning in their best free throw shooting performance of the season in a 71-61 victory over No. 24 Purdue in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Iowa (8-3) came in to the game shooting 63 percent from the line, and Alford pinned much of the blame for losing three of the last four games on that poor effort.
Against Purdue (10-4), the Hawkeyes went 29-of-37 from the line (78 percent), topping the previous high of 76 percent on Dec. 2, against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“The difference is foul shooting,” Alford said. “When you can make free throws, your offense looks a lot better, your kids feel better about themselves, and the game doesn’t look quite as ugly.”
Guard Pierre Pierce led the Hawkeyes with 19 points, 13 on free throws. Jared Reiner added 14 points and Jeff Horner had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Iowa’s free throw shooting was helped by Purdue’s season high 29 personal fouls. In return, the Boilermakers rarely visited the free throw line, going 7-of-10.
Purdue coach Gene Keady didn’t blame the officiating for the imbalance. He criticized his players instead, and noted that both teams were warned before the game that referees would aggressively call hand-checks.
“They didn’t listen to the coaching, they didn’t listen to what the referees said,” Keady said of his team, which is on the tail end of a four-game road trip. “I’ll be glad to get back to school so we can get some smartness transplanted. We have to teach them how to play the game better.”
Kenneth Lowe led the Boilermakers with 19 points in a game his teammates struggled throughout to find their shooting touch. Purdue shot 37.5 percent from the field and was just 6-of-26 from behind the 3-point arc.
Lowe hit a 3-pointer to give the Boilermakers a 32-30 lead, capping a 7-2 run to open the second half and erase Iowa’s three-point halftime lead.
But the Hawkeyes reclaimed the lead for good a minute later when Pierce made the second of two free throws to put Iowa up 33-32.
Four minutes later, Sean Sonderleiter fueled a 10-4 Iowa run by scoring on three straight possessions. He capped the run with an assist to Brody Boyd, whose easy layup put Iowa up 49-41 with 10:19 to go.
The Boilermakers’ David Teague hit a 3-pointer from the baseline with 8:04 to cut Iowa’s lead to 54-50, but Purdue would get no closer the rest of the way.
“They just played harder than us,” Keady said. “They battled and got the loose balls and when you get the loose balls and you get more possessions than the other team, you’re going to win.”
Reiner scored on a strong drive and hit the ensuing free throw to put Iowa up 57-50. The Hawkeyes went 10-of-16 from the free throw line over the final 7 minutes to hold on for a victory that avenged last season’s home loss to the Boilermakers.
Horner said the win serves as a big lift for a team Alford said was pressing too hard the last four games.
“It was huge,” said Horner, who had four assists and was 8-of-9 from the free throw line. “I can’t stress how important it was to get a win. Any time you beat a ranked team it’s awesome.”