Leistikow: Hawkeyes' big win on NCAA stage was a year in the making

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio — This crazy Iowa basketball season, in seemingly several strokes of fitting fate, built up to exactly this.

Those frenetic, sometimes miraculous finishes gave the Hawkeyes confidence they could deliver in big moments.

The four straight losses to finish the regular season tested their ability to stick together in difficult situations.

So, when the most important game of their lives came along, and repeated adversity struck … the Hawkeyes were ready.

Ready to grasp the moment, not shy away from it.

Ready to prove they are not only a tough team, but a very good team ... with more basketball ahead.

Jordan Bohannon celebrates late during Iowa's 79-72 win against Cincinnati, in which he scored all 13 of his points in the final 20:01.

Tenth-seeded Iowa impressively punched its ticket to the second round of the NCAA Tournament by vanquishing seventh-seeded Cincinnati, 79-72, Friday before a Bearcats-partisan crowd at Nationwide Arena.

“We’ve had so many last-second shots, so many last-second opportunities to try to get wins,” Bohannon said. “That definitely helped us.”

Iowa fell behind, 34-22, with 2 minutes, 43 seconds left in the first half. And it seemed like a miracle that it was that close.

Yet for a team that trailed Northwestern by 12 points with 2:54 left in a game on Feb. 10 and still found a way to win, this was child's play. Iowa scored 24 of the game's 37 points in a dominant, closing performance.

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As I reflected on this game of big moments a few hours after it finished, I came to this conclusion: There weren't two bigger points than the ones Bohannon scored with 1 second left in the first half. The team’s No. 1 clutch option hadn’t scored in this game — after being shut out by Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament one week earlier.

But as he twisted in the lane to bury an off-balance jumper, the Hawkeyes were suddenly only down five, 36-31, with 20 minutes to play. And when Iowa wins, it usually comes with Bohannon’s swagger — which had returned.

“I almost wish he was more cocky than he is,” teammate and junior classmate Tyler Cook said. “It’s a beautiful thing when he gets going, and he gets that look on his face and he’s in attack mode.”

It's no secret Iowa had struggled from long range lately. Yet the second half to come would feature a confident array of Iowa shooters — Bohannon, Connor McCaffery, Luka Garza, Nicholas Baer and Joe Wieskamp all buried big-time 3-pointers in the final 16½ minutes.

Garza was a wizard on offense, scoring 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting with seven key rebounds.

"They put 40 minutes of offensive pressure on your defense," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin would say.

And oh, how about Joe?

Wieskamp was a warrior all night. The 6-foot-6 freshman (19 points, five rebounds) kept Iowa competitive early, then netted a deep ball from the left corner with 1:46 to play, pushing Iowa’s lead to 70-64.

No fear. No hesitation. All net.

“I don’t view myself as a freshman. I have so many games under my belt," Wieskamp said. "I feel like I’m a big-time player. And big-time players make big-time plays.

“I’ve always had that in me, just being able to take over games when I need to.”

Bohannon (13 points, five rebounds, four assists) followed with a nifty 3-point play with 1:07 to play; 73-64 Hawkeyes.

The players could taste success, but it wasn’t over yet. When Cincinnati star Jarron Cumberland banked in a 3-pointer and Baer threw the ball out of bounds, a couple Hawkeyes said they immediately thought of that crushing Nebraska loss that ended the regular season.

“When that shot went in, I was like here we go,” Connor McCaffery said, recalling how Iowa lost a nine-point lead in the final minute in Lincoln. “I think we did a really good job of keeping our composure.”

After Wieskamp calmly drained two free throws on a one-and-one, this win was essentially in the books.

So, back to the start of this column. It could be added that this performance was building for more than a year, not just during the 33 games that led to this.

Around the postgame locker room, Hawkeye players spoke about seeing their hard work after last year’s 14-19 season pay off with success on the ultimate stage.

Now they're 23-11. A chance at more glory, Sunday against No. 2 seed Tennessee with even higher stakes, awaits.

“Since April, we’ve been busting our behinds,” Cook said. “We’ve had good days and bad days. Our effort, our consistency and our goal never changed. We kept our eyes on the prize.”

Even though Iowa players say they’re off Twitter, they know there were doubters leading up to this game. They felt disrespected to be slotted a No. 10 seed and play a conference champion in a pseudo-home game.

Given all that, to do what they did Friday made them pretty darn happy.

“All through the year, we’ve been dealing with people telling us you’re not good enough, you’re not this, you’re not that,” said junior forward Ryan Kriener, who had four big points to start the second half as Cook sat with foul trouble. “We’ve really stuck together. It’s just been everyone in this locker room versus everybody else. It’s a bet on yourself mentality and let the cards fall where they may.”

The Hawkeyes are one win from the program’s first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years. They believed they could get here. They did.

They deserved to relish this memorable win. They did.

“We went on that skid. But we got here, we knew what we wanted to do,” Bohannon said, “and we ended up doing it.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.