Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl let his teammates know: 'I'm back.' He talks about why that is. Listen: Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — You can call this Iowa Hawkeyes basketball team “The Resilient Seven.”
The bench keeps getting shorter, and the athletes on it keep standing taller.
On Thursday, coach Fran McCaffery summoned only two players into the game who weren’t in the starting lineup.
First was Cordell Pemsl, a junior forward who admittedly had lost his swagger earlier in the season. The second was Bakari Evelyn, a graduate transfer guard who had yet to show the home fans what he can really do on the court.
Both came up with their best games of the season, helping to key an inspired 85-76 victory over No. 24 Ohio State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Evelyn tied a season-high with 15 points, making a trio of timely 3-pointers as No. 20 Iowa (19-8, 10-6 Big Ten Conference) never let the Buckeyes (17-9, 7-8) get back into the game after falling behind 18-3.
“I’ve been waiting to have a good game at Carver,” he said.
The Hawkeyes won a 12th consecutive home game. In the previous 11, Evelyn had 15 points total. So, yeah, he was due. And very relieved.
“I’m getting more comfortable every game,” said Evelyn, who has scored 31 points in Iowa’s past three games after averaging 2.3 up to that point. “I definitely feel more confident.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery felt the 6-foot-2 Evelyn was “pressing a little early” in the season, when he was being used more on the wing while senior guard Jordan Bohannon was in the lineup. Bohannon is out for the year after hip surgery. Iowa was also without starting shooting guard CJ Fredrick on Thursday due to a sprained ankle.
That meant Evelyn and Pemsl needed to provide more. Evelyn said the Hawkeyes’ two-man bench didn’t have to verbalize that with each other.
“I just gave him a look. He knows what time it is,” Evelyn said of Pemsl.
For Pemsl, it’s time to turn back the clock, to his freshman season, when he played without a care in the world and didn’t mind being reviled on the road. He averaged 8.9 points that year, making 61.7% of his shots. His chatter was on target, too.
That hadn’t been the case this year, after a season lost to surgery and an offseason marked by an OWI arrest. Pemsl said doubt had crept in. He hadn’t scored more than six points in a Big Ten game all season.
On Thursday, Pemsl came into the game and gave Iowa an immediate basket, tipping in a Joe Wieskamp missed layup. That pushed the lead to 18-3. The Buckeyes were essentially cooked at that point. Pemsl just added some spice to things.
In the second half, after Evelyn pulled up to bury a fast-break 3-pointer, Pemsl stole the basketball from Ohio State star Kaleb Wesson. He wasn’t done there. He dribbled and spun through the lane for a layup that put the Hawkeyes ahead 56-42 and prompted a Buckeye timeout as the crowd of 14,001 rose to its feet.
Pemsl turned to Iowa’s bench and mouthed the words: “I’m back.”
“I was just letting them know that, ‘Hey, I’ve still got it in my bag,’” Pemsl said. “They just wanted to see me do it. I finally did it and they were happy about it.
“I’m just not playing to not make a mistake anymore. I’m just going out and being loose and just being myself.”
Pemsl finished with nine points and a team-high eight rebounds.
“He’s a very, very gifted passer,” Iowa center Luka Garza said of Pemsl, who had three assists Thursday. “But sometimes he passes when he can score. I’ve been trying to tell him that for a while. I’m just proud that he played with a lot of confidence.”
McCaffery said he never sensed that Pemsl had been doubting himself. But he maintained a conversation with his fourth-year player throughout the year anyway.
“I kept talking to him and kept believing in him. I knew we were going to need him,” McCaffery said, “and he knows we were going to need him.”
Iowa, which is tied for third place in the Big Ten, is playing for positioning in the league tournament. The Hawkeyes are playing for a quality seed in NCAA play. Pemsl knows what’s at stake. So does Evelyn.
“If we’re playing well, we’re going to be a hard team to beat,” Pemsl said of Iowa’s reserve players. “When you’ve got that many options, it’s hard to defend, so hopefully me and (Evelyn) just keep playing with that confidence.”
Iowa guard Bakari Evelyn is gaining confidence in his shot and is happy to finally have a strong performance at home. Listen: Hawk Central
Only one 3 for Wieskamp, but it was a big one
Wieskamp, a sophomore guard, has felt the absence of Fredrick more than any other Hawkeye. They are the starting wings, and one creates openings for the other.
There are very few openings for Wieskamp now, and his statistics have suffered. He was 1-for-7 from the field for a season-low two points in Sunday’s 58-55 win at Minnesota.
On Thursday, Wieskamp made only one of his six 3-point attempts. But it was a shot that got him going somewhat as he finished with 13 points in a team-high 37 minutes.
The play came on Iowa’s final possession of the first half, when Ohio State had cut the lead to 43-35. McCaffery called timeout. He drew up a play assuming the Buckeyes were going to be in man-to-man defense. They were in a zone instead.
Garza got the basketball and had a decent look at the rim, but chose to make an extra pass to Wieskamp alone in the left corner. Wieskamp let it fly and found nothing but net. Iowa led by 11 points at intermission.
“That was just a really good player (Garza) making a really good play, and a really good player (Wieskamp) making a really big shot,” McCaffery said.
It’s hard to say if the basket meant more to Iowa’s fortunes or Wieskamp’s confidence. He drove with more verve in the second half, including a highlight-reel dunk.
“It was huge for me,” Wieskamp said.
“Shots weren’t falling. They were all over me. I’m trying to do a good job to adjust to how they’re playing me, but it’s been a work in progress.”
Wieskamp admitted he puts a little too much pressure on himself sometimes. It’s understandable. He’s Iowa’s second-leading scorer at 14.9 points per game. But it’s a battle he needs to fight, and win, going forward. The second half Thursday may have been a big step in that direction.
Fredrick 'fairly close' to returning, but why take chances?
Fredrick, a freshman, is Iowa’s third-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game. So naturally, the team wants him back as soon as possible.
But McCaffery is being cautious with the ankle injury, reasoning that if Fredrick isn’t ready to play a full game, there’s no need to hustle him into the lineup.
On Thursday, Fredrick worked up a sweat in the morning to see if he was ready to compete in a Big Ten game. The decision was that he was not. He didn’t even go through warmups with his teammates in the evening.
“We need him for the long term. We’re not going to try to steal one game and see if we can get 15 minutes out of him. There’s no way he could have played 35 minutes, so there’s no sense putting him out there,” McCaffery said. “(The ankle is) still black and blue.”
And that made that decision pretty black and white. Iowa has four days between games, with a matchup at Michigan State at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Those are the teams tied for third in the league.
If Fredrick can go, it will be a big boost for the visiting team. If not, it needs to be the Evelyn and Pemsl show again for Iowa's Resilient Seven.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.