In heated Cy-Hawk rivalry, Iowa's Pemsl enjoys being the hated one

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

AMES, Ia. — Cordell Pemsl left Hilton Coliseum with a gash in his leg and the crowd ringing in his ears two years ago.

The Iowa forward was in the middle of a dustup at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last season when Iowa State came calling.

Cy-Hawk games seem to bring out the feisty best in Pemsl, a Dubuque native, and he knows he may be the least popular person in the building Thursday when the Hawkeyes (7-3) head into Hilton Coliseum for a 7 p.m. rivalry game against the Cyclones (6-3). It will be shown on ESPN2.

Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl (35) gets tangled up with Iowa State forward Michael Jacobson (12) while Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm (far left) runs in during a NCAA Cy-Hawk series men's basketball game on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

“I’m sure there’ll be something for a few of the guys on the team,” Pemsl said, anticipating the fans’ ire. “But that’s noise that we’ve heard in every other arena as well. So we don’t want to let them think they’re living in our head rent-free. We’re going to do our thing. We’re going to play the way we know we can play.”

Pemsl was in Iowa’s starting lineup as a freshman for his first Cy-Hawk showdown, in 2016 at Carver-Hawkeye. He had 11 points and five rebounds in that 78-64 Hawkeye win.

The trip to Ames in 2017 didn’t end so well. Pemsl had 10 points and eight rebounds, but the Hawkeyes were playing from behind all night in an 84-78 loss. Late in the game, Pemsl got into a fracas under the basket that spilled into the crowd, cutting his leg on a chair so severely that he said he could see down to the bone.

“I was hooping for a while,” he said with a smile, recalling that encounter. “Not how I wanted that game to end.”

Pemsl played in only two games a year ago before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. But he made sure one of them was at home vs. Iowa State. He scored eight points with six rebounds in 16 minutes. As he always seems to be, he was in the middle of things when tempers flared near the end of Iowa’s 98-84 win.

Pemsl, at 6-foot-9, 248 pounds, is an athlete who appears to thrive on the physicality of his sport. He certainly doesn’t shy away from it.

“I try to embrace it, but my mom (Katy) tells me to relax sometimes. So I’ve got to take it easy,” Pemsl said after Iowa defeated Minnesota 72-52 on Monday. “I always just want to be a guy that you hate to play against but you love to play with. So just bringing that energy and that toughness, just being able to do it on either end of the floor is a big thing to me.”

This year, Pemsl has shown flashes of the player he once was, but not for a complete game. He has scored only 20 points in his eight contests, half of those in a home win over Cal Poly. He made a terrific play to grab an offensive rebound and feed CJ Fredrick for the key 3-pointer in a victory over Texas Tech. But more often, he’s been just another guy on the floor, not really looking to score.

“He’s getting closer. The more playing time he gets, the more comfortable he’ll be out there,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Pemsl. “He also really sees it defensively. He’s talking. He’s always in the right place. And, even though he’s a big guy, he can slide his feet on a switch and stay out of foul trouble. So a really critical piece for our team moving forward.”

Iowa is likely to be moving forward without Jordan Bohannon after this game. The senior guard from Marion has been eyeing the contest at Hilton all season as a potential swan song as he decides whether to shut things down and pursue a medical redshirt following offseason hip surgery. McCaffery said they have not yet discussed Bohannon’s future, but will soon.

Oddly, Bohannon scored only 15 points total in the two wins over Iowa State at Carver-Hawkeye. He had 19 two years ago in Ames.

And now he gets one more chance to be the villain in this rivalry, a role he also seems to relish. It’s then possible that both Pemsl and he would get one more shot at the Cyclones next year in Iowa City.

On Thursday, they’ll be fighting against recent history. The home team has won 14 of the last 16 Cy-Hawk games. The Hawkeyes’ last victory in Ames came in 2003, when Bohannon and Pemsl were 5 years old.

“I know Iowa State fans like to say it’s our Super Bowl, but it’s Iowa vs. an Iowa team,” Bohannon said. “Anyone who was a Hawkeye fan growing up, you would die to play in these games.”

Or at least bleed.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.​​​​​​​