COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s not an exaggeration. This was the best and most meaningful win a Fran McCaffery-coached team has earned in his nine seasons as Iowa’s men’s basketball coach.
The Hawkeyes had two other NCAA Tournament victories under McCaffery, but 24th-ranked Cincinnati is the best team they have beaten in this event. The way they got the 79-72 triumph made it all the more satisfying, rallying from an early 18-5 deficit, and trailing by seven points with 13:45 left in the game.
Iowa looked overmatched through much of the first half. But the older the game got, the more the Hawkeyes looked like the superior squad. They outscored the Bearcats by 19 points in the game’s last 22 1/2 minutes.
Turning to a full-court press and half-court zone defense, Iowa threw Cincinnati’s offense out of sync. Offensively, the Hawkeyes featured a vast improvement in shooting combined with players who constantly got the ball to teammates in the right places.
That may have seemed like science-fiction in the game’s first eight minutes, when the Hawkeyes fell behind 18-5 and seemed to be giving 10-seeds a bad name.
“They came out and threw the first punch,” McCaffery said, “got up 18-5. We got to the rim three times in that stretch and none of them went in. That can snowball on you. But we crawled back into the game with our press and zone, made enough shots, and made a little run at the end of the first half.”
It was 36-31 at halftime. Iowa took a lead early in the second half, allowed eight straight points, fought back to tie the game twice, then moved in front for good with 4:04 left on a Luka Garza lay-in.
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Garza is one name on a long list of Friday’s Hawkeye heroes. Tyler Cook was the player missing most of those chippies early, and had just five points on 1-of-9 shooting. But Garza produced a lot of low-post production with his 20 points. His team scored 15 more points than Cincinnati when he was in the game.
“We just needed to stay confident with each other,” Garza said. “We know what we’re capable of. We keep saying that but it’s true. We know what we can do when we play at our best.”
Freshman Joe Wieskamp had 19 points, including a 3-pointer with 1:45 left in the middle of an 8-0 run that gave the Hawkeyes the hammer.
“I tried not to think about how big a stage this truly was,” Wieskamp said.
Jordan Bohannon showed a different twist to his scoring capability. The 3-point specialist scored off drives twice in the final 2:37.
“I’m not a point guard,” Bohannon said facetiously when asked about his dribble-drives, “so I don’t know what you’re talking about.
“I know I’m not the quickest guard, but I’m really smart with my angles.”
Nicholas Baer scored all 10 of his points after halftime and was on the court when it was winning time.
“We’re not afraid of the moment,” Baer said.
How about Connor McCaffery? The freshman point guard didn’t join his team for warm-ups until shortly before game-time. He played only 11 minutes, but had two assists, and popped in a second-half 3-pointer. He was able to play 11 minutes.
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“I woke up this morning feeling not very good,” McCaffery said. “I went to breakfast, the team meal, then I started throwing up when I got back to my room. I threw up four or five times, in my room and once when we got to the arena.
“I came here and just laid on the table. I wanted to try to go out for warm-ups. I went out for a minute and they said I looked terrible, so I came back. I got my IV. Once I got that IV, I tried to give it the best shot I could.”
Cook, who struggled so mightily with his own offense, found an open McCaffery with 11:08 left in the game. The freshman didn’t hesitate, despite being 5 of 28 behind the arc this season before the shot.
“T.C. did a great drive-and-kick,” McCaffery said. “I’m thinking ‘Make this,’ and I did.”
“Connor was sick,” Fran McCaffery said. “The way he played was phenomenal.”
Was the second half Iowa’s best mental half of ball this season?
“I think that’s a fair statement,” Fran McCaffery said.
As 20-minute blocks that meant something go, it was as good as this program has seen in a long time.
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