EVANSTON, Ill. — You’ve seen it so many times in sports. A team is missing its best player, and its other players come together for a big effort.
Necessity, it’s been said, the mother of invention.
That was the Iowa men’s basketball team Wednesday night in Welsh-Ryan Arena. Facing the reputation of being soft on the road (10 losses in 11 previous Big Ten road games, and often by embarrassing margins), the No. 25-ranked Hawkeyes could have gone full marshmallow once they learned Tyler Cook was sitting out with knee soreness. Cook brings 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, and aggressiveness.
“I didn’t know (Cook would be out) until shoot-around today,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “Yesterday he thought he was going to go. He just didn’t feel right today.”
But Iowa’s players jelled without their star junior, and in a situation that had usually led to dire results away from home. After being tied at halftime, the Hawkeyes staggered through the first three minutes of the second half and fell behind 41-35 when McCaffery called a timeout.
He told his guys this couldn’t be another “Here we go again” moment.
“We had gotten away from what we had talked about doing,” McCaffery said, “what we had to do to go on the road in this environment against a quality team like Northwestern. I felt we were a little haphazard. … We were a little lax with our defense.”
In the final 17 minutes, the Hawkeyes defended, rebounded, and played smart, patient offensive ball. They had just seven turnovers in the game. And, they got players taking turns taking over.
First, it was freshman Joe Wieskamp. Joe gave the Wildcats a jolt with 10 points from the 14:44 to the 12:55 marks of the second half, leading his team from a 44-37 hole to a 52-46 lead that they didn’t surrender.
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“I thought he was great,” McCaffery said. “Coming down the stretch, he was spectacular as a scorer and as a rebounder and as a defender.
“Nothing rattles him. He makes plays. If it’s there, he goes. If not, he moves it. He didn’t force anything.”
Wieskamp had 19 points. It wasn’t his highest-scoring game, but it was his best one. He scored on drives and jumpers. His teammates moved the ball around and freed him to do his thing, then they mobbed him after the game in appreciation.
Wieskamp, a stoic as a player, smiled.
“This team is a lot of fun, a lot of great guys,” Wieskamp said. “They make me feel good about myself, give me so much confidence throughout the game.”
Big man Luka Garza took the mantle after Wieskamp’s spree. He was just too much for Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon, who fouled out trying to defend Garza and had a season-low six points as a side effect.
Garza made 10 of 11 free throws in getting 16 points, and hit six of those foul shots in a 1:41 stretch midway through the second half to keep the ‘Cats at bay.
Just two games ago in a dismal 86-70 loss at Purdue, Garza sat and watched as he missed his third straight game with a sprained ankle. Exit, Cook. Enter, the Garza of late last season when he blossomed.
“Everyone knew they had to dig in and everyone had to step up,” Garza said.
“Once adrenaline kicks in I feel 100 percent. There may be some things lacking, but every day I’m a step closer.”
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Nicholas Baer had nine points, 10 rebounds, no turnovers. Jordan Bohannon, held without a basket for 37 minutes, had a floater off the glass that he followed with four more points to ice the win.
It was the definition of a team win, and it was needed. Suddenly, the Hawkeyes are 2-3 in the Big Ten instead of 0-3. If they can beat No. 17 Ohio State at home Saturday — no small task — the schedule says they can get to 5-3 before fifth-ranked Michigan State arrives in Iowa City on Jan. 24.
You’d rather not try it without Cook. But for one night, things came together without the team’s focal point. It may come with long-term dividends.
“This,” Baer said, “is a huge confidence-booster.”
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