Iowa coach Fran McCaffery knew his team needed to get the ball back down 66-63 with 24 seconds remaining in regulation against Penn State on Thursday night, and he knew he had to prevent the Nittany Lions from scoring at all costs.
Rather than play out the remaining 10 seconds on the shot clock, however, McCaffery decided to force the ball into Penn State forward Jonathan Graham, a sub-40 percent free throw shooter this conference season, then foul him, hoping for a miss on the ensuing bonus free throw that would have given the Hawkeyes the ball back down by what he hoped would still be just one possession.
Sound strategy in theory, but Graham chose not to stick to the script, hitting both bonus shots to give Penn State a five-point lead, one that would hold up as the Lions went on to prevail 69-64 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
"Big surprise for them, right?" Graham said with a smile after the game.
A surprise indeed, as Graham had converted on just eight of his 23 attempts from the line this season beforehand. Percentages said he was more likely to miss that hit, and that's what Iowa banked on as it hoped for a chance to come all the way back from a 16-point deficit early in the second half.
Graham said after the game he stepped to the foul line confident, however, and tried to block out the magnitude of the moment. He said he focused only on maintaining a clear head and coming away with at least one point to make the contest a two-possession game.
"I work really hard on my free throws," Graham said. "Whenever I have free time, I go to the gym. I shoot a lot of free throws. Just routine and just knocking it down with confidence."
The clutch makes were the sugar on top of a memorable night for the redshirt freshman, a Baltimore, Md. native. He posted a career high in points with 10 and also grabbed six rebounds on the evening, a key effort in the Lions' second consecutive victory after a five-game losing streak.
Graham has been in and out of the starting lineup this season and his numbers aren't very eye-popping. He's averaging just 3.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. Following Billy Oliver's announcement Saturday that his playing career is over, however Graham stepped into bigger minutes on Thursday and made the most of them, scoring four early buckets and staying involved at bother ends for most of the night.
That has his coach, Patrick Chambers, smiling ear to ear.
"I'm just so proud of him to show the confidence that he did," Chambers said after the game.
Graham's eight points against Indiana on Jan. 8 represented his previous career-high scoring night before Thursday. Beyond that, however, he's struggled to find himself at times and has even fought against pneumonia. These factors have prevented him from becoming much of a regular factor for the team until the last month or so.
Now that Graham has gotten a taste of success, though, Chambers feels it can feel the rest of his game down the streatch run of the 2011-2012 basketball season.
"I think you're going to see a much better, more confident Jon Graham now. "I think this is going to help him."
We shall see.
Here's video of Graham talking about his performance after the game.