CHICAGO — Nicholas Baer kept firing and tiring Thursday at the United Center.
The Iowa senior made a career-high five 3-pointers and ran himself to exhaustion to carry his team where it hasn't been in six seasons: the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Conference Tournament.
Iowa used a near-flawless second half to blitz Illinois 83-62. Everyone got into the act. But Baer got top billing, tying his season high with 17 points in a mere 17 minutes. He made quick work of the Illini (12-21) and then was the quickest Hawkeye to get dressed, greeting reporters in a dress shirt and tie some 15 minutes after the game concluded.
"My mom never waited around for me," Baer said with a smile. "I've just always been a quick dresser."
Joy Kelly was waiting for Baer somewhere in the concourses of the arena. The two could certainly celebrate his finest hour in what has been a terrific Iowa career.
"I'm just thrilled for him. Nicholas is such a special young man, and it's so important for him that our team do well," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "He wants to perform at a level that he's appreciated by his coach and his teammates."
Baer downplayed the significance of getting the Hawkeyes to a Friday in this tournament for the first time since 2013. He insisted he wasn't focused on the history. But snapping the team's four-game losing streak that ended the regular season was certainly on his mind.
So Baer stayed active even after missing his first 3-pointer. He buried his next five.
"I didn't make my first shot, but I just stayed confident. (Tyler Cook) had a nice drive and found me in the corner. I knocked that one in," Baer said. "I think it's really big for our team that we all play really aggressively. I think that's what I did (Thursday). I think it's what a lot of guys did (Thursday). And that's when we're playing our best basketball."
The Hawkeyes (22-10), who have flourished against the Illini the past two seasons, had seven different players make a 3-pointer and finished with 25 assists on 31 field goals. The assist total was the most in a Big Ten tournament game in program history.
Iowa had a remarkable 16 assists and just one turnover in the second half, breaking free from a 37-31 edge at intermission to lead by as many as 27 points.
Iowa has eclipsed the 83-point barrier in each of its past four games against Illinois, all victories.
The sixth-seeded Hawkeyes advance to face third-seeded Michigan at 8:30 p.m. Friday here. The Wolverines bounced Iowa from this tournament a year ago, but fell 74-59 in Iowa City this winter in the teams' lone meeting.
Here's what we learned
MOSS, WIESKAMP SET EARLY TONE: The Hawkeyes’ two starting wing players, junior Isaiah Moss and freshman Joe Wieskamp, had plenty of motivation in this game, and it showed early. Moss was playing in his hometown. Wieskamp was participating in his first collegiate postseason game.
They led a spirited defensive effort that forced a pair of early shot-clock violations, plus two other Illinois turnovers. Each also made their first two baskets, Wieskamp on a 3-pointer and then a rugged drive that also netted him a free throw.
"We knew that they were going to be aggressive; they're a driving team," Moss said. "So we just tried to stay in front of them, use help defense."
Moss finished with nine points in an arena he used to visit often as a child to watch the Bulls play. He used nine tickets for relatives, and his parents, Mike and Angie, snapped up a bunch more. He's not sure how many family members were in attendance, but he sure noticed them.
The same group of relatives will be back Friday, Moss said.
"They've got to keep coming," he said. "Until Sunday."
That would be for the Big Ten championship game. What a story that would be for Moss.
HAWKEYE DEFENSE COMES AND GOES: Iowa’s early excellence on defense couldn’t be sustained. Illinois made eight of 10 field-goal attempts after falling in an early hole, taking its largest lead at 13-10 with 13:56 left in the first half.
Iowa kept pace with balanced scoring. Jordan Bohannon had eight first-half points. Wieskamp, Nicholas Baer and Tyler Cook had six apiece. Eight Hawkeyes scored in the first half.
Late in the half, with Iowa’s starters in and clinging to a 30-29 advantage after a 9-0 Illinois run, the defense buckled down again. Illinois kept finding itself in late shot-clock situations and didn’t score again until a putback just before the halftime buzzer.
Iowa led 37-31 at intermission.
COOK HAS GREAT ALL-AROUND GAME: Iowa junior forward Tyler Cook energized the Hawkeye portion of the crowd with three demonstrative dunks, one of them on an inbounds play. He finished with 12 points, but just as impressive were his six assists to tie a career-high. He also contributed five rebounds.
TURNAROUND STARTED AGAINST NEBRASKA: Iowa shot 52 percent from the field and on 3-pointers Thursday. But it didn't come out of nowhere. McCaffery and Luka Garza both pointed to Sunday's 93-91 overtime loss at Nebraska as a positive step for the team. The Hawkeyes built a 16-point second-half lead in that one, only to see it stripped away late.
"I think it started there, and we watched the film and recognized it," Garza said. "We came out here and we got up 16 early in the second half. That's all we were saying in the huddle: 'We're going to do what we didn't do at Nebraska.' That's what we did. We finished this game out."
Garza said the Hawkeyes were able to keep up their defensive intensity and take care of the ball, two key ingredients in holding off a team like Illinois that thrives on forcing turnovers.
"They're a really aggressive defensive team and to have only one turnover in the second half, that's why the game blew open like it did," Garza said. "They're a team that's dependent on forcing turnovers and getting in transition and scoring that way. So when we were able to stay poised and execute, they can't do that."