The Iowa sophomore lays out the keys to Thursday's hard-fought victory Mark Emmert / The Register
EVANSTON, Ill. — Nicholas Baer is rarely motionless on a basketball court.
So there was concerned silence in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday when the Iowa forward collapsed under his own basket after trying to draw a charge from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. Baer was called for a foul on the first-half play and, to make matters worse, took a foot to the — let’s put this delicately — lower torso.
Baer gathered himself, got to his feet and limped to the locker room to polite applause. Moments later, he emerged and jogged down the length of the Hawkeye bench, got the attention of coach Fran McCaffery at the far end and exchanged a quick fist-bump.
The message: “Put me back in whenever you need me, Coach.”
Baer started the second half, slipping loose for a jumpshot that started the most important 20-minute stretch of the season for the Hawkeyes. Rallying from nine points down, Iowa took the measure of the No. 19 Boilermakers and then took the game away, ending with an 83-78 upset victory.
Baer’s fingers were all over this one. In the final 9 minutes and 16 seconds, all the sophomore did was grab eight defensive rebounds, assist on a Tyler Cook dunk, steal the ball from Purdue star Caleb Swanigan and make the final two free throws that sealed the win.
“You’ve just got to root them out of there and continue to go to the boards,” Baer said when asked how a skinny former walk-on from Bettendorf was able to hold his own against Swanigan and 7-foot-2 Purdue center Isaac Haas.
“You don’t really think about it that much. You just see a guy being ready to make a play and (you) try to impact the game.”
Impact a game? Baer, at 6-7, 205 pounds, reared up to block a Haas dunk attempt in the first half. He put himself in harm’s way again on the Edwards drive.
Baer played 15 minutes in the second half and helped the Hawkeyes control the glass. The eight rebounds he gathered in the final 9:16 were as many as any other player had for the entire game. Iowa outrebounded Purdue 35-28, outscored the Boilermakers 40-20 in the paint and gave up only nine second-chance points.
Purdue closed the game by making just 4 of 17 shots, including a Swanigan drive for the lead with 14 seconds left that Baer disrupted.
The Boilermakers had made 19 of 36 shot attepts until that point.
“Just incredible,” was McCaffery’s assessment of Baer’s flourish at the finish. “I mean, he seems to be everywhere. So if you're in zone, he seems to cover like three guys, and that is good for everybody else.”
Iowa (11-7, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) plays at Northwestern (14-4, 3-2) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday (BTN), with another tight game likely in store. The Hawkeyes’ past four games have been decided by six points or fewer, two of them in overtime. Baer has had double-digit rebounds in two of the past three contests, despite averaging only 22.4 minutes of action.
In close games, there is no better asset than Baer, whose willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team win has been on display all season.
Baer, who is now on scholarship, started Iowa’s first eight games, then seamlessly and without complaint returned to his sixth-man role. He is sixth on the team in scoring at 6.8 points per game. But he is first in rebounds (6.4 per game), steals (25 total) and blocked shots (23). His off-ball defense is superior, forcing opposing ball-handlers to account for him at all times.
Sunday’s game will be another tall order for Iowa, which is winless in three tries on the road this season. The Wildcats are 9-1 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and rank 20th nationally by coughing up only 10.9 turnovers per game.
Hawkeye wing players Isaiah Moss and Dom Uhl exited Thursday’s game with injuries, but are expected to be available to play Sunday. Still, Baer needs to be ready for a heavier workload.
“We know it doesn’t get easier after this,” Baer said after Thursday’s win. “We just have to continue to fight the way that we did tonight.”