CHICAGO — This was Joe Wieskamp’s first foray into postseason college basketball, and you could see from the beginning Thursday how important it was to the Iowa freshman.
Not just to play well under the brighter lights of a grand March stage at the United Center. But to help his Hawkeyes end a four-game losing streak.
Wieskamp, a flash of anger in his eyes, helped harass Illinois into a shot-clock violation just 48 seconds into a second-round game in the Big Ten Tournament. Twelve seconds later, he put Iowa ahead with a 3-point swish. Another Illinois shot-clock violation followed, as did two more turnovers. Wieskamp drove from the right side to muscle in a layup while being fouled by Illinois senior Aaron Jordan. He made that free throw.
Iowa was on its way to an 83-62 victory. By the end, Wieskamp was laughing and getting a playful shove from teammate Tyler Cook after fulfilling a pregame promise to get a dunk on some poor defender.
“Sometimes all it takes is for one guy to get going and then everyone else gets going. When guys play with emotion and energy, things start to happen,” Wieskamp said. “That’s something you can bring every game, whether your shot’s falling or not.”
Wieskamp had scored 24 points on a pristine 8-for-8 shooting performance the first time Iowa met Illinois. That was in a 24-point Hawkeye home win in January.
Those 24 points were not lost on Wieskamp’s teammates.
“We knew he had a really good game against Illinois last time out and we wanted to get him going early. He knocked down his first shot and then from there he was phenomenal,” Iowa forward Nicholas Baer said after scoring a game-high 17 points.
“I think I got a couple 3s just because Joe kept the ball alive.”
Iowa led 37-31 at halftime. When play resumed, Wieskamp was back at his best, this time with a relentless rebounding effort. His layup opened the scoring. Wieskamp gathered Iowa’s first three rebounds in the half, drawing three fouls on overmatched Illini players in the process. Then he made another layup. Iowa’s lead kept mounting.
Wieskamp finished with 13 points. His seven rebounds led Iowa. Three of them were offensive. He also led the Hawkeyes with 30 minutes of court time.
There was no questioning his value in this victory.
“Sometimes, offense isn’t going to come to you right away. You’ve got to lock in defensively and make plays happen that way, be up into their space. Try to make turnovers happen. It leads to offense,” Wieskamp said of his mindset heading into the game.
“I try to always be aggressive on the offensive glass. Sometimes, the ball doesn’t bounce to me. Luckily (Thursday), they were bouncing my way.”
Next for Iowa (22-10) is an 8:30 p.m. Friday quarterfinal vs. third-seeded Michigan. Wieskamp was already looking ahead to that after Thursday’s game, not wanting to get too excited about what had just happened.
But he did acknowledge the importance of starting strong in postseason play, especially in light of the way the regular season ended for Iowa.
“I think we needed it pretty badly,” he said of Thursday’s win. “It’s a big confidence booster.”
With 5 minutes remaining in Thursday’s game and the outcome long decided, Wieskamp made the play that had Cook and him grinning, a moment that summed up the exhilaration and relief the Hawkeyes felt.
Cook, a junior power forward who had three memorable dunks of his own Thursday, had told the 6-foot-6 Wieskamp before the game that he wanted him to throw one down. Again, it was Jordan who became Wieskamp’s victim, fouling him and prompting an exuberant flex from the Iowa rookie. Wieskamp made the free throw for his final point. He left the court 3 minutes later and found Cook on the bench.
“We never thought we went anywhere,” Wieskamp said of the notion that the Hawkeyes of late February and early March had been a shadow of their earlier selves. “We’ve been here, the same team, all along. We’re just going to keep fighting, day in and day out.”