COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Iowa men’s basketball team had to pull itself out of an early abyss Friday just to make the second half matter.
That left 20 minutes to determine who would move on in the NCAA Tournament and who would go home muttering about what might have been. Would it be tournament-tested Cincinnati, the seventh seed? Or the underdog Hawkeyes, all but one of them playing on this stage for the first time?
This is the essence of March. And the partisan crowd at Nationwide Arena, a swath of Bearcat red, discovered what is the essence of this year’s Iowa basketball team.
Fortitude. Grit. Teamwork.
The 10th-seeded Hawkeyes had it all, especially in the all-important final 4 minutes, when they finally seized the lead and never let it go to pull out a 79-72 victory in their first NCAA Tournament game in three years.
“To be able to come back to a locker room where we’re all jumping,” sophomore center Luka Garza said. “That’s what you dream of.”
Iowa had forged ahead three times in the second half, only to see Cincinnati (28-7) quickly reclaim its edge. The Bearcats have been in this tournament nine consecutive years. They were playing 100 miles from home, and the volume inside the arena reflected that. They had not lost a game all season when leading at halftime.
That’s the hill the Hawkeyes had to climb.
More from Iowa's upset of Cincinnati:
- Leistikow: Hawkeyes' big win on NCAA stage was a year in the making
- Leistikow's Final Thoughts: A happy NCAA moment for the McCafferys, Hawkeye basketball
- Anatomy of a comeback: Four things Iowa did to vanquish Cincinnati
- Hawkeyes storm back from early hole to thump Cincinnati in NCAA Tournament opener
Garza bulled inside for a layup with 4:04 left to give Iowa a 64-62 lead, the most important of his game-high 20 points. That was the advantage that stuck. The rest of the game belonged to a team eager to prove it wasn’t just happy to finally be here.
“We’ve been in so many close games throughout the season. Those moments prepare us for this. Guys just stuck together and kept making plays,” Iowa forward Joe Wieskamp said after scoring 19 points.
“Composure. Poise. Those are the things that you have to have in the NCAA Tournament. You can’t get tentative. You can’t get nervous out there.”
Wieskamp is a freshman. Wieskamp is a star in the making.
He followed Garza’s post move with a contested 3-pointer from the left elbow. Swish. Wieskamp was standing in front of the boisterous group of Hawkeye fans in the building. He turned and gave them a killer smile.
It had taken time to adjust to Cincinnati’s matchup defense, Wieskamp explained afterward. Iowa hadn’t faced anything quite like it this season.
“He has always done a really good job of figuring out, ‘What are they doing to me? What are they doing to us? What can I do that's different than what I've been doing?’ He's a very cerebral guy in that sense,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Wieskamp.
“You saw him become more confident in what he was doing at both ends.”
Point guard Jordan Bohannon, who stands only 6-foot-1, drove into the paint and banked in a short shot while getting fouled. He made the free throw and finished with 13 points in 38 sweat-soaked minutes. Suddenly, Iowa (23-11) was up 72-64, in control of a game that had once seemed so far out of its grasp.
Wieskamp hit a pair of free throws. Nicholas Baer sprinted in for a dunk. Iowa kept getting stops and defensive rebounds. The final one landed in Baer’s hands. He is the team’s lone senior, the only one with previous Big Dance experience.
He could have celebrated right then. Instead, he quickly passed the ball to Bohannon, wanting the team’s best free-throw shooter to have it. Just in case.
Bohannon dribbled out the final 4 seconds, a weary smile on his face.
“Get it to 'Bo' in case they foul. That’s my first instinct,” Baer replied when asked what was going through his mind when he pulled down his fourth defensive board of the game.
“I saw the clock run out. ‘All right, I’m here a couple more days.’ It’s just a great feeling for me, so excited to win a game on this stage.”
Iowa had lost five of its previous six games to arrive in Columbus devoid of any fanfare. The Hawkeyes had trailed 18-5 just 8 minutes into this game and looked to be on the verge of extinction.
None of that mattered when the clock hit 0:00. Iowa is moving on to the second round to face second-seeded Tennessee on Sunday.
“We just knew we didn’t want to go home yet,” Garza said. “We packed for five days for a reason.”