IOWA CITY — And now, the Big Ten. After a few moments to towel off some perspiration.
Adversity stared the Iowa men’s basketball team in the eye for the first time this season, and the Hawkeyes didn’t flinch, thanks largely to defense and Nicholas Baer. The senior forward scored 11 straight points for his team at one stretch in the game’s last 10 minutes, doing plenty of crunching at crunchtime.
The 15th-ranked Hawkeyes avoided the bummer of a fast descent from the top 15 of the national polls after their rapid rise up the rankings. With conferences games against Wisconsin and Michigan State in succession facing them, the Hawkeyes sweated out a 69-68 ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over previous fellow-unbeaten Pittsburgh on Tuesday night in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It took an entire second half of good defense and a final stand in the last 10 seconds for Iowa to escape with its sixth victory in as many games. Trailing 69-68, Pitt got the ball with 10 seconds left after the Hawkeyes’ Tyler Cook missed two free throws.
Trey McGowens missed a shot off a drive to the basket. Teammate Sidy N’Dir got the offensive rebound, but his off-balance desperation shot at the buzzer missed badly, and the Hawkeyes had hung on.
Those last two misses left the Panthers 7-of-24 from the field in the second half after they canned 19 of 31 first-half shots for 61.3 percent. The ease with which Pitt scored in the first 20 minutes was all too reminiscent of how Iowa’s defense was gouged last season.
The second half? That was defense. The Panthers went from five turnovers at the half to 17 in the game.
“I wasn’t real pleased with our performance in the first half on a number of different levels,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “We weren’t battling the way we need to battle against a team of this caliber.
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“I thought when I challenged them at halftime, in a very direct way, they responded and I’m really proud of that.
“They (Pitt) scored 22 points in the second half. We slid our feet. We battled on the glass. We got the floor, and we really fought. When you win a game like this, it’s a great feeling in the locker room because it certainly was not a thing of beauty by any means, but that’s how games are sometimes.
“So you have to make adjustments. We made them, and the kids performed well.”
Said Baer: “I’m really proud of the second half. A lot of credit to Coach McCaffery.
“I think it shows our growth. There were times last year after having the first half we had, giving up the first half we had, giving up 46 points, we might have given up 90.”
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge hasn’t been good to Iowa, historically. But the Hawkeyes improved to 6-12 in this event, and far more importantly, 6-0 this season with No. 22 Wisconsin coming in here Friday night and the Hawkeyes then headed to Michigan State on Monday.
Without Baer’s offense, though, no amount of Iowa defense might have been enough. He stuck three 3-pointers (all off passes from Connor McCaffery) and a pair of free throws from the 9:02 to the 6:14 marks in the second half. That was all of Iowa’s offense in that time, but it kept the Hawkeyes in a seesaw game.
“After the first one,” Baer said, “I was kind of running down the floor looking for my shot.”
Pitt had a 46-40 halftime lead, but Iowa scored the first seven points after that. It was full-throttle teeter-totter from then until Baer’s third 3-pointer gave the Hawkeyes a 64-62 edge at that 6:14 mark. The rest of Iowa’s scoring was a Wieskamp knife to the basket, and three Baer free throws in the last 1:29.
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Wieskamp’s 18 points and Baer’s 16 paced Iowa. It was Baer’s best scoring game since he had 20 against Penn State in March of his sophomore season.
“He’s been a leader for us,” Wieskamp said, “so it was good to see him have that big of a game, that big of a spark. I think that’s a big reason why we won this game."
Freshman guard Wieskamp, meanwhile, had a career-high 11 rebounds.
The lineup McCaffery went with in the final minutes was Wieskamp, Baer, Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon and Connor McCaffery. Wieskamp played a career-high 33 minutes.
“I think Joe Wieskamp’s really good,” Fran McCaffery said.
“I think he has a reputation for being a certain kind of player, but if you watched him and you know him, he’s so much more than that. He drives it, he blocks shots, he defends, he rebounds, he pushes it, he finds people, he makes threes, he gets fouled.
“He’s not a mistake guy. Tremendous competitor, really intelligent, and you know, ultimately, he’s a winner, is what he is.”
With the news junior forward Cordell Pemsl will apply for a medical redshirt because he’s having season-ending knee surgery next month, Iowa apparently has a nine-player rotation, consisting of its nine remaining active scholarship players. Walk-on sophomore forward Riley Till may see use as situations dictate. He played six minutes in Iowa’s win over Oregon in New York on Nov. 15.
This means multiple roles for many of the players, including Wieskamp.
“I view myself as a versatile player, play the 1 through the 4,” said Weiskamp, “It’s been a little tough trying to learn all the plays.
“I know I’m going to make mistakes, but I’ve just got to keep fighting through that.”