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Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer says versatility has led to improved defense. And, yes, the Hawkeyes are thinking about March already. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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NEW YORK, N.Y. — Standing in a concrete hallway at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Nicholas Baer had a trophy in his hands and a satisfied smile on his face.

The lone senior on the Iowa men’s basketball team was toting it to a bus waiting to bring the victorious Hawkeyes back home after their two-day blitz through the 2K Classic here. The Hawkeyes pummeled Connecticut 91-72 on Friday, after upsetting No. 13 Oregon the day before.

The trophy wasn’t heavy, Baer said, looking as if he could carry it all the way back to Iowa City if need be. But it may be heavy with symbolism for a Hawkeye team tired of carrying the label “soft.”

“I think we view ourselves as a team that’s ready to make a run in March. That’s something we’ve prided ourselves on. That’s always been our goal,” Baer said. “We know these were big games. Big games in November are going to help you out in March.”

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Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery apologizes for a late Ryan Kriener dunk in win over UConn. Hear what he said: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

 

A Hawkeye basketball team hadn’t won a tournament like this since the 1998 San Juan Christmas Shootout. A year ago, Iowa played three games in the Cayman Islands in November and dropped two of them. That season was soon a lost cause, with a 14-19 finish.

In the world’s greatest arena, with a national TV audience tuned in on ESPN2, things looked markedly different. The Hawkeyes weren’t getting pushed around. They were doing the pushing. Oregon and Connecticut never had an answer.

“You come to New York and win a championship, that’s a big deal,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team ran its record to 4-0. “It does not mean we’ve arrived by any means. It means we’ve made progress. We’re different. Tougher, deeper, better offensively, better defensively. We’re a year older. We’re more mature.”

That covers a lot of ground. So did the Iowa defense Friday.

Connecticut made 12 of 21 3-pointers in upending No. 15 Syracuse on Thursday here. The Huskies (3-1) needed 30 minutes of Friday’s game to make a single one.

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“We just wanted to make sure we were contesting their threes, but also closing out and defending the drive because they’re all so quick,” Iowa point guard Connor McCaffery said.

Luka Garza scored 18 of his 22 points in the first half to help Iowa build a lead that eventually reached 25 points. He was named the tournament’s MVP.

Two other Hawkeyes stood out as well Friday.

Junior forward Tyler Cook played 38 minutes, scored 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds. No player on the court had more of either.

When UConn did make a run, it was Cook who gathered his teammates at the free-throw line and implored them to stay together. He was the glue to this victory.

“He’s one of those guys that never seems to be tired, and I just felt like he was doing so many good things, I left him out there,” Fran McCaffery said of Cook. “We felt like we had an advantage with him. We felt like they didn’t have a lot of guys who matched up well with him. And he took advantage of it. I thought his decision-making was spectacular.”

Cook spun around his defender on the baseline for a reverse left-handed dunk with 13 minutes, 48 seconds left in the game. It was only then that he indicated to McCaffery that he could use a little rest. He got two minutes, and was right back in.

Cook also made the all-tournament team.

“The biggest difference from a year ago is the fact that we’re more together,” Cook said. “We’re playing for one another and our coaching staff and our program with more pride than we did a year ago.”

Connor McCaffery was called into the game after 89 seconds had elapsed. Starting point guard Jordan Bohannon was whistled for two fouls and sent to the bench.

McCaffery, a redshirt freshman, was a steadying hand on both ends of the court for Iowa. He finished with 19 points and five assists. The left-hander is a sturdy driver at 6-foot-5 and Connecticut repeatedly fouled him. He made 9 of 11 free throws. He celebrated his successful bank shots by turning to the Iowa bench and flexing both arms.

“He gave us leadership. He was a floor general. He got the ball to the people who needed it,” Fran McCaffery said of his son. “No panic. They came after him with everything they had, and he handled it. He drove it when he had to.

“He’s rock-solid. He’s worked on his body and he utilizes it.”

Iowa next hosts Alabama State on Wednesday night. That trophy Baer was holding on to might make an appearance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, if he’s willing to let go of it.

“We took all the pain that came with last year. We used that as motivation over the summer to come out here and be a better team,” Garza said.

“Everybody who came here stepped up.”

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