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Leistikow: Fran Fade? Guess again. McCaffery's Hawkeyes have staying power this season.

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As Thursday night’s game unfolded, Iowa's players kept making baskets against Ohio State that were almost hard to believe.

By the end of 20th-ranked Iowa’s impressive 85-76 win against No. 24 Ohio State, fans watching here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (not to mention those tuning into the ESPN broadcast) had little choice but to believe in these Hawkeyes.

This is a good team.

A very good team.

I’ve admittedly been slow to come to that conclusion. I know there are others who were braced for a downturn. They can't possibly hold up to more injuries, some of us thought.

Thursday night looked like an especially tough spot for Iowa, playing without injured sharpshooter CJ Fredrick and against a Buckeye team that had won five of its last six.

But on Thursday, Iowa gave its visitors no chance with a relentless assault of demoralizing shots and hard-nosed defense.

As much as the 104-68 loss at Purdue was one of those nights that everything goes wrong, this was one of those nights that Iowa could seemingly do no wrong.

True to its tight-knit form, Iowa players Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp help up teammate Cordell Pemsl during the Hawkeyes' 85-76 win against Ohio State that wasn't really that close.

When Luka Garza flung in a baseline shot with two big Buckeyes draped around his No. 55 jersey, the Ohio State bench reacted in amazement. His long 3-pointer late in the first half solicited outward frustration from a Buckeye assistant coach.

Garza had 24 points, known these days as “the usual.”

Connor McCaffery, Bakari Evelyn and Joe Toussaint swished six 3-pointers among them on 10 attempts, for 60%. For the season, they’d been a collective 28% from deep. Evelyn pumped in 15 points, tying his season high. Not a bad Fredrick impression.

Cordell Pemsl made the niftiest spin move you’ll ever see, drawing “oohs” from the Carver crowd before the ball even dropped through the hoop for two. He had his best game of the season, with nine points and eight rebounds.

“The guys that haven’t really done a whole lot,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said, “stepped up and made shots.”

And then, to cap it all off, the one player who had been struggling the most Thursday delivered the exclamation point.

Joe Wieskamp thundered through the Ohio State lane and delivered a two-handed slam dunk that was as much a release of frustration as it was a celebration for another big Hawkeye win. A game after being held to two points at Minnesota, Wieskamp finished with 13.

“When you struggle to score for two straight games and you see an open lane,” said Wieskamp, whose dunk pushed Iowa’s lead to 73-59 with 4:18 left. “you just want to finish it strong.”

For the night, Iowa shot 55.6% from the floor — its best accuracy of the conference season against the best scoring defense in the Big Ten. During Ohio State’s 5-1 stretch, it was allowing foes a paltry 60.7 points a game.

Iowa had more than half that (31) in the game’s first 11 minutes, 9 seconds.

Anytime Ohio State seemed to make a run, Iowa had an answer — either offensively or defensively — and would routinely extend its lead. The Buckeyes never got closer than within seven points (and that was in the last minute) after falling behind, 18-3.

“Every time we needed consecutive stops,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, “we got them.”

Fran Fade?

It sure doesn’t seem like it’s happening this year. Thursday, for me, was the convincing argument.

McCaffery agreed afterward that this is the most confident team he’s had in 10 years at Iowa.

In other words, it’s mentally tough. So why keep bracing for a fade?

Iowa has one losing streak this year. It lasted two games, against Penn State and Nebraska. Its record after losses is 7-1.

“We’ve had that confidence the entire year. We’ve gone in into tough buildings and getting huge wins and now, obviously, being very good at home,” Garza said. “We just continue to build momentum in all sorts. No matter what lineup is out there, we all play really well together.”

There are only four regular-season games left. Iowa is now 19-8 overall and at 10-6 in the Big Ten standings, tied for third place in the nation's most rugged and best conference. The team it's tied with? Preseason national No. 1 Michigan State.

Those two teams happen to play each other Tuesday in East Lansing, Michigan, with the winner owning an inside track for a top-four seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which comes with a lovely and coveted double bye.

McCaffery expressed afterward that he is bringing Fredrick back from his ankle injury slowly. Fredrick was close to going in Thursday night, but the coach astutely said, “We need him for the long-term.”

Good.

With a healthy Fredrick, this Iowa teams gets even better, even tougher, and has even more confidence.

With Fredrick, it’s got the makings of a team that can make the program’s first run to the Sweet 16 since 1999.

Even without him, the Hawkeyes looked like the real deal Thursday night. That’s the most encouraging thing of all.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.