Hawkeye walk-ons thrill crowd, teammates in victory over Savannah State

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Saturday was for the walk-ons on the Iowa men’s basketball team.

All four of them — Riley Till, Austin Ash, Nicolas Hobbs and Michael Baer — scored points in the No. 21 Hawkeyes’ 110-64 victory over Savannah State.

All four of them won over a crowd announced at 13,444 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Iowa forward Riley Till (20) chases down a ball away from Savannah State forward Tyrell Harper (00) during a NCAA men's basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

All four of them provided moments that sent the Hawkeye starters on the bench pulsating into delirium.

Till, a redshirt sophomore who has steadfastly worked his way into the playing rotation, contributed a career-high 10 points and a pair of steals.

Ash, never shy to launch a shot, nailed a trio of 3-pointers for his best game.

Hobbs banked in the most improbable corner 3 you’ll ever see, surprising even himself.

Baer provided the final points, a 3 that was the 19th of the day, a program record for Iowa (10-2). The crowd that remained roared as if it were a game-winner. The Iowa bench, including older brother Nicholas Baer, nearly sprinted on the court even though the game was not yet officially over.

Iowa forward Ryan Kriener (15) leaps in the air with Iowa forward Nicholas Baer (51) while they celebrate a teammate's basket during a NCAA men's basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

“The position as a walk-on, it’s not glamorous. It’s not overly publicized,” Till said of the crowd reaction. “Everybody kind of likes an underdog story and people that work hard.”

Till, a 6-foot-7 forward from Dubuque who turned down scholarship offers at lower-level programs to play for the Hawkeyes, said he no longer thinks of himself as a “walk-on.” That’s just a title, he said.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he’s happy to lean on Till for heavy minutes as his team has suffered a series of injuries. The latest was a sprained ankle that center Luka Garza suffered late in Friday’s practice. He was in a walking boot Saturday, and the prognosis is uncertain.

“That’s rare that you have a 6-7 walk-on who can, on the break, try to dunk on two guys and back-cut and steal the ball and hit a cutter and hit a jumper,” McCaffery said of Till.

Till first came to the rescue for Iowa in its Nov. 15 victory against Oregon in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Foul trouble had put the Hawkeyes in a precarious spot late in the first half. Till’s 6 minutes that night included three offensive rebounds and a blocked shot.

He said after Saturday’s game that he never doubted he’d one day score 10 points in a game for the Hawkeyes.

“I like to think I bring a little edge, whether it’s toughness and tenacity, just kind of hustling, that kind of mentality,” Till said. “I don’t have to necessarily pace myself. So I can kind of afford to go all-out for three- or four-minute spurts, and that can translate to me crashing the glass more, me running the floor a little bit harder.”

After the first postgame media interviews of his Iowa career, Till returned to the court. There was a long line of children who wanted his autograph.

Saturday really was for the walk-ons. You’ll be seeing more of Till.

Hawkeyes down to seven healthy scholarship players; for how long?

Iowa is redshirting three scholarship players this season — CJ Fredrick, Jack Nunge and Cordell Pemsl. On Saturday, backup point guard Connor McCaffery sat out while being monitored for concussion symptoms. He is nearly ready to resume playing, though, said Fran McCaffery, his father.

It's the Garza situation that is the biggest concern. The sophomore missed the first game of his career Saturday and it is uncertain when he’ll return, McCaffery said. Iowa’s next game is at home against Bryant on Dec. 29. Garza won’t be needed for that one. But Big Ten Conference play resumes after that, starting Jan. 3 at Purdue. Iowa will need Garza then.

“We’ve had an inordinate amount of sprained ankles, which, in and of themselves, don’t set you back long-term. They set you back short-term, and it changes everything,” McCaffery said.

Regarding Garza: “It’s a matter of how he responds. He’s going to go home. He’s got a diligent gameplan for how to take care of this thing. The next couple days is still ice, ice, ice. Get the swelling down. And we’ll see where he is when he gets back.”

After big game, Bohannon admits his confidence has been shaken

Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon had his best game of the season, draining six of 14 3-pointers to finish with 18 points. He wasn’t ecstatic.

He said he should have made nine against a Savannah State defense that never seemed to know where he was on the court, let alone get a hand in his face.


But Bohannon also said it was a game he needed after making just 18 of 56 3-pointers in Iowa’s first 10 games. On Friday, he said he wasn’t worried about his shooting as long as the Hawkeyes were winning. On Saturday, it was clear that he has been a little worried.

“I’ve been struggling with my confidence. And that’s something I never thought, ever since I started playing basketball, I’d have a struggle with that,” said Bohannon, who is typically very hard on himself. “I never really had that period where I just doubted myself completely. I think I was going through that these last couple games where I just wasn’t myself.”

McCaffery has always made it clear that Bohannon, the team’s best long-range shooter, has a permanent green light. He liked what he saw Saturday.

“Typically, they’re guarding him a little bit closer. They played a lot of 2-3 zone and even in the first half, our ball movement enabled him to get some shots up,” McCaffery said of Bohannon. “And that’s what I want him to do: Just keep firing.”

It’s too soon to pronounce the Bohannon slump over. He even said that in his first answer to reporters’ questions. But, even against Savannah State, this surely was a good sign for Iowa. Bohannon’s ability to stretch the floor is vital in creating space for forward Tyler Cook down low and for freshman Joe Wieskamp on the wing.