Leistikow's Final Thoughts: A happy NCAA moment for the McCafferys, Hawkeye basketball

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio — After finishing his TV interview following Iowa’s 79-72 win against Cincinnati, Fran McCaffery gave a fist pump to the Hawkeye fans in attendance at Nationwide Arena. He hugged his wife, Margaret, on the way to the locker room.

A choppy couple of weeks for the ninth-year Iowa coach and Hawkeye basketball had turned into a first-round NCAA Tournament win. The Hawkeyes head to the weekend as one of 32 teams alive for a national championship.

That's pretty special.

"To celebrate with your teammates in a locker room after an NCAA win," the coach said, "there’s nothing better.”

Connor McCaffery (30), Nicholas Baer (51) and the Hawkeyes react to their 79-72 win against Cincinnati.

McCaffery had been suspended two games in late February for postgame behavior. His team’s history of March slumps became magnified by fans and media (including me) as the Hawkeyes lost five of six games entering the NCAA Tournament.

And what surely makes the victorious moment so special is that his son, Connor, is on the team. His other children — Marit, incoming recruit Patrick and Jack — were in the stands cheering on the Hawkeyes. They all shared in the win together.

“It’s huge,” Connor McCaffery candidly said afterward. “I always will have my dad’s back through anything, obviously. I love him. My brother Patrick, all my siblings. I wish I could take some of the s--- that they catch, I guess, for a lack of a better word. I wish I could do more for them. It’s hard on my mom. It is. Just coming out and getting a win like this, it just means a lot.”

Powerful stuff.

This Hawkeye win was absolutely a team win. It’s not all about the McCafferys. But as you heard from their son, the first family of the program had extra reason for celebration Friday.

More from Iowa's upset of Cincinnati:

And as it turned out, Connor McCaffery almost didn’t play.

The red-shirt freshman guard awoke Friday with nausea. He didn’t participate in team warm-ups because he was getting IV fluids, with the hopes he could suit up for his NCAA Tournament debut.

Connor came out to the floor just before tip-off. He was on the bench as the game started — freezing.

“I was really cold after the IV. I got the shivers,” he said. “I was trying to get warm, because I didn’t stretch. I didn’t warm up. I was trying to get to the point where I could get ready to come in. When I came in, I sucked. When I came in the second time, I was fine.”

McCaffery's 11 minutes were needed Friday. With Iowa trailing, 52-47, he found Luka Garza for a 3-pointer out of an inbounds play. Then he canned a 3-pointer with 11:08 left to push Iowa ahead, 53-52. 

“Every person on the team helped me out during the game," he said, "because they knew I was hurting.”

McCaffery is an outfielder for the Iowa baseball team and had planned to join Rick Heller and Co. in Bloomington, Indiana, for a three-game series that started Friday. Not anymore. He's got another basketball game Sunday in the NCAA Tournament. (And maybe another batch of IVs, too. We'll know more about his status Saturday.)

"I already texted Coach Heller and Coach (Marty) Sutherland," McCaffery joked. "They’re happy for me. I think I’m all good.”

Before the game, I outlined four “musts” for the Hawkeyes to beat Cincinnati. How’d they do?

No. 1: Win the battle of the boards. Success! Iowa got clobbered on the offensive glass early but won the rebounding battle late. Iowa had 33 rebounds to the Bearcats' 32. Cincinnati was 23-2 when winning this category. “The fact that we out-rebounded them says a lot about the toughness of our team,” Fran McCaffery noted.

No. 2: Commit nine or fewer turnovers. Failed: Iowa had seven in the first half, 14 for the game. Didn't make it under 10, but the number wasn't terrible against an oppressive defense.

No. 3: Don’t allow a surprise star for Cincinnati. Incomplete: Justin Jenifer, who had scored eight points or fewer in six of seven games, had 12 points in the first half alone and finished with a career-high 19 points. The senior guard is a starter, but not usually a high scorer. Iowa held the Bearcats to 6-for-27 (22 percent) from 3.

No. 4: Make 10 3-pointers. Success! Iowa went 11-for-22 from 3-point range, including a remarkable 7-for-11 in the second half. That was probably the biggest stat of the Iowa win. Six different Hawkeyes connected from deep.


Fran McCaffery did something unusual (for him), maybe out of desperation. And it worked.

He brought Cook back to the floor with 9:20 left in the first half with two fouls. Iowa's leading scorer sat for five minutes before returning, and had an impact in bringing the Hawkeyes back from a 20-12 deficit. Cook scored four points and didn't commit a foul before sitting the final 3:52.

At that point in the game, Iowa needed 5½ good minutes out of a key piece ... and got them. This was not Cook's greatest night (1-for-9 shooting, five points), but the junior did collect seven rebounds, four assists ... and his first NCAA Tournament win.

“I’m smiling. I had one of my worst games. I couldn’t finish much," Cook said. "But it feels good, the fact that we fought and did it as a group.”