IOWA CITY, Ia,- Coach Todd Lickliter was reluctant to acknowledge the gorilla that came off his team's back on Saturday. Freshman Point Guard Cully Payne was more than willing to talk about the lightened load.
"It's definitely important," Payne said after the team captured its first Big Ten win of the season, a 67-64 win against Penn State.
"It was a Big Ten win. We got a win two or three nights ago (Tennessee State). We're not winning by a fluke now. We're kind of coming together. (Aaron) Fuller is playing well. Matt (Gatens) is playing well. We're coming together and playing well together, which is what we've been trying to do."
Fuller notched his second consecutive double-double in the 67-64 victory against Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds (seven offensive) in 35 minutes. He was plagued by a severely sprained ankle through the non-conference season.
"I feel like I'm 100 percent," the sophomore said. "I'm just trying to play well and help my team."
Overall, Iowa dished off 16 assists and turned it over only nine times against consistent, full-court pressure from the Nittany Lions (8-9, 05).
"We've all noticed (the on-court) chemistry improving," Payne said. "We kind of know where each other is at and what each other is going to do. Defensively, we're always there for each other, taking charges. It's the little things that are bringing us together."
Penn State came out strong, grabbing a 22-11 lead with 8:07 remaining in the first half. The Hawkeyes responded with excellent defense, including a incredible block on a fast break by Eric May. They held a 31-28 halftime lead and never trailed again.
"The last six minutes of the first half, we really relaxed," Lions Coach Ed DeChellis said. "We were up 11 and we just relaxed. Our young guys, they don't understand how hard you have to continue to play. You can't relax. You have to stay focused."
The Iowa players and coaches looked relieved after the game Saturday. With three of the next four contests on the road, they garnered some much-needed momentum.
"I really like this team, and I've said that all along," Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter said. "They have good grit. They care about playing the right way. They care about one another. They're good guys. They had some miscues, but we didn't let that define us."
Iowa returns to action on Wednesday in East Lansing, where they will take on Michigan State at 5:30 p.m.