DES MOINES — Saturday was a day for the big-conference men’s basketball programs of the state to feel good about themselves.
In the annual state capital doubleheader for Iowa’s four Division I teams, Iowa routed Drake, 90-64. Iowa State took what had been considered a tossup game and earned a 76-65 win.
The big schools loved what happened here for different reasons. In Iowa’s case, it was because it played its best game of the season in improving to 6-6.
There wasn’t anything you could quibble with if you were a Hawkeye fan. The team did everything you could reasonably want in overwhelming a Drake club that battled Minnesota to the final horn in Minneapolis earlier in the week.
UNI gave Iowa State problems for 30 minutes, leading for most of that time. But the Cyclones never buckled, and outplayed a very good Panthers team the rest of the way.
Iowa State, so dreadful in its home-opener loss to Milwaukee on Nov. 13, has peeled off eight straight wins. The best emotionally was the one over Iowa in Ames on Dec. 7. But the best in terms of beating somebody was this one over UNI.
UNI has built a strong resume, beating good teams in North Carolina State, SMU, UNLV and Texas-Arlington. The Panthers entered the day in the top 20 of the RPI, having only lost to mighty North Carolina and Villanova in their first 10 games.
Beating UNI, Cyclones Coach Steve Prohm said, is “a very, very good win.”
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Prohm has very, very good guards in junior Nick Weiler-Babb and freshman Lindell Wigginton. Iowa State is 8-0 since Prohm moved Weiler-Babb to point guard. He has averaged 8.8 assists since.
The reason for the win streak? “Nick,” Wigginton said. “He got our pace going at the offensive end.”
Wigginton, however, was Saturday’s game-changer. He scored 13 of his 20 points in a 5-minute stretch when Iowa State went from trailing 47-45 to leading 61-52.
“He’s got the ability to make a lot of plays,” UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said.
“He lets the game come to him. … It seems to me he plays with enough patience in a way that helps their team. That says a lot about a guy in his first year.”
Wigginton is averaging 20.8 points over the last five games. That’s a freshman. That’s a wow.
“He played 40 minutes,” Weiler-Babb noted. “He held the team together.”
How far Iowa State goes from here is anyone’s guess. “I’m excited about where we’ve been able to get to right now,” Prohm said, “but I’m excited about what we can be if we stay humble and keep working.”
Iowa, meanwhile, attacked, guarded, and took full advantage of their big size-advantage over Drake. The psychic core of this win was a trio of guys who have battled ailments or injuries of varying degrees.
Nicholas Baer, Cordell Pemsl and Jordan Bohannon all played with a fury Saturday. Baer missed the season’s first six games with a broken finger. Pemsl missed the last one with leg laceration after a scary spill at Iowa State. Bohannon left the court late in the first half to have his left ankle checked, but returned to finish off a fiery 15-point, 7-assist performance.
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Baer had career-highs in rebounds in rebounds (14) and steals (5). If you put his steals and assists together, he’d have had a triple-double. It felt like a triple-double kind of effort from him.
Baer, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said, was “really spectacular with his energy level.
“He was the difference in our team today, completely. No question about it.”
He is Tsar Nicholas in Wells Fargo Arena. In three wins here as a Hawkeye, Baer has 35 points, 32 rebounds, 10 assists and nine blocked shots. He emerged as a walk-on two Decembers ago to block six Bulldog shots here, and hasn’t stopped hustling since.
The Hawkeyes will have to do more than hustle to make something of this season, but at least they looked like a team with potential on Saturday. It’s a start.