COLUMBUS, Ohio — For much of the first half Friday in the NCAA Tournament, it felt like the Iowa men’s basketball team was pushing a piano up a hill.
In the second half, the Hawkeyes played a Concerto in W before a pro-Cincinnati crowd in Nationwide Arena. As in they won. As in, they played a great half of basketball in their most important half in a long time. As in, 10th-seed Iowa 79, 7th-seed Cincinnati 72.
As in, there’s more basketball to be played for the Hawkeyes, back here Sunday for a second-round game against fifth-ranked Tennessee at a time to be announced late Friday night. The No. 2-seed Volunteers staved off 15th-seed Colgate here Friday, 77-70
Oh, what a second half Iowa (23-11) had here. It shot 65.4 percent from the field, made 7 of 11 3-pointers, and outscored the Bearcats, 48-36.
It was done with offense, it was done with defense. It was by staying the course emotionally while changing it strategically, installing a full-court press and a zone defense that altered a Cincinnati offense that had done a lot of what it wanted before halftime.
Iowa trailed 18-5 eight minutes into the game, and it felt like the Hawkeyes’ season might be over before lunchtime.
“So we made some adjustments,” Hawkeyes Coach Fran McCaffery said. “We changed the defense. We changed some personnel a little bit. You start pushing some different buttons.
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“But I think the critical thing is that the players maintained confidence. You don’t start screaming and yelling at them, blaming them because they didn’t rotate and block out.
“If I’m spazzing and yelling at everybody for that, they’re not going to lock in on what we need to do with offense, what defense are we in, who is on the floor for them, where is (Jarron) Cumberland, who do we need to get the ball to?”
Cumberland, Cincinnati’s ace junior guard, got his typical 18 points. But he never took control of the game, and missed 6 of 9 3-pointers. The Bearcats were without someone who put the game on their shoulders as it grew late. The Hawkeyes had a court-full of players willing and able to do so.
“It seemed like everybody made a big shot,” said Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer, who came up huge with all 10 of his points after halftime.
One of those big shots came before intermission. Jordan Bohannon hit a short jumper to beat the first-half buzzer and reduce Cincinnati’s lead to 36-31. That 18-5 deficit built on a 14-0 UC run had been narrowed to 24-19, but the Bearcats shot it back up to 32-21. Bohannon’s bucket capped a 10-4 run to end the half and put some good feelings in Iowa’s locker room.
“Coach McCaffery always talks about it,” Hawkeye freshman guard Joe Wieskamp said after his 19-point debut in this tourney. “It’s the anatomy of the game. They’re going to make punches, they’re going to have runs. But it’s how we handle that and how we react to it.”
The fact is, Iowa didn’t handle it in four losses of 14 or more points in their previous six games. The difference Friday?
“Making shots is probably the top,” Bohannon said. “Making shots is what we haven’t been doing in the games we’ve lost, the last five of six games. It hasn’t been fun.”
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Iowa’s second half, however, was as fun as anything a person can legally do in Columbus on a Friday afternoon.
It didn’t all come together immediately after halftime. Bohannon made a bomb to give Iowa a 40-39 lead with 16:24 left, but the Bearcats ripped off eight straight points to put the Hawkeyes back on their heels.
So the Hawkeyes went back to scaling that hill. Five minutes later, Connor McCaffery swished a 3-pointer to give Iowa a 53-52 lead.
Again, the Bearcats withstood the charge, going up 59-55. It was their last real flurry. Iowa had a 7-0 run, with back-to-back 3s by Wieskamp and Baer. Cincinnati tied the game at 62, then Iowa’s Luka Garza scored on an inbounds pass with 4:04 remaining for two of his game-high 20 points, and the Hawkeyes began pulling away for keeps.
Bohannon scored off a drive. Wieskamp hit another 3. Bohannon scored off another dribble-drive, was fouled, and converted the three-point play. Wieskamp made two free throws. Baer put the exclamation point on things by jamming the ball through the basket on a breakaway, courtesy of one of Tyler Cook’s four assists.
It was 77-69 with 26 seconds left, and the Hawkeyes were headed to their third NCAA win in McCaffery’s nine-year Iowa tenure, and the first as a lower seed.
“We stuck together,” Wieskamp said. “You just had to take it one possession at a time, lock in defensively, try to get into their space, box out.”
Yes, defense. The dirtiest word in last season’s vocabulary describing the 14-19 Hawkeyes of last season was said with pride by Iowa’s players after this game.
And now, a chance for Iowa’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years.
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