DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa redshirt freshman forward Nicholas Baer picked the perfect time to do his best Jarrod Uthoff impersonation.
With Uthoff mired in foul trouble against Drake on Saturday, the 6-foot-7 Baer came off the bench and stuffed the stat sheet while leading Iowa to a 70-64 victory in the Big 4 Classic at Wells Fargo Arena. Baer scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked six shots and had two assists while playing 30 minutes.
Iowa finished with a school-record 14 blocks while improving to 8-3 on the season..
"I’m just excited to be here and get a chance to play," said Baer, who joined the program as a walk-on. "I always wanted to come to Iowa and coach (Fran) McCaffery gave me the opportunity to walk-on.
"I always envisioned myself as a player, not just as a practice player. When you come here, you want a chance to compete on the floor. And I just had a really good game today."
Senior point guard Mike Gesell led four Iowa players in double figures with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field, while Uthoff and senior guard Anthony Clemmons both scored 10 points apiece. Uthoff scored in double figures for the 11th consecutive game this season despite only playing 21 minutes, including just five minutes in the first half.
Drake had trimmed the lead to 60-56 on a basket by Reed Timmer with less than 5 minutes to play. The Hawkeyes then answered with back-to-back treys by Baer and sophomore forward Dom Uhl. That pushed the lead back to double digits at 66-56 with slightly less than four minutes remaining.
Saturday’s victory came nine days after Iowa blew a 20-point lead in the second half against Iowa State before losing 83-82 at Hilton Coliseum in Ames.
"The Iowa State (loss) hurt, but I think we learned from it," Gesell said. "We did a much better job down the stretch. We could have done a little bit better at times. But it’s just never a perfect game. I think we did a very good job of getting the stops when we needed them and then closing out with a rebound."
Gesell said he saw signs of Baer’s potential in practice last season.
"I noticed it last year when he was redshirting how hard he works," Gesell said. "He’s just a guy that’s going to go out there and give it his all."
Baer had four of his six blocks in the first half. He also made 3-of-5 shots from 3-point range and scored his first two baskets on dunks.
"I’m not too worried about stats," said Baer, who is from Bettendorf. "I’m just trying to make plays."
Baer made lots of plays during Saturday’s game, much to the delight of McCaffery, who thought enough of Baer to invite him to join the Iowa program as a walk-on.
"I am not surprised at all," McCaffery said of Baer’s performance. "When I first saw him play, I was kind of shocked that he didn’t have much recruiting activity because it was late when I saw him at the state tournament. I just offered him an opportunity and he jumped on it."
McCaffery’s next offer to Baer will likely be a scholarship.
"Obviously, we’re going to have to give him a scholarship at some point," McCaffery said. "I think that’s safe to say. I don’t know when that’s going to be. But I just look at it like this; when you ask somebody to come play for you whether you’re given them a scholarship or not, clearly you think that they can help your program."
Baer has a sister who thought he could help the program and she let McCaffery know about it.
"His sister came in and advocated for him long before we ever offered him an opportunity," McCaffery said. "That’s the kind of family he comes from. She said, `my brother can really play and I think he can play here and I think you guys should look at him.’
"When it’s all said and done, you can be athletic and you can be big and strong and you can be a great shooter. But you really have to understand how to play this game to be good. And I think when you watch him play, it’s a beautiful thing because he drives it when you should drive it. He passes it when you should pass. He shoots it when he’s open. He runs the floor. He helps and recovers."
Drake scored the game’s first six points on back-to-back 3-point baskets, the second by Northwestern transfer Kale Abrahamson with 18:17 left in the first half. Iowa answered with six consecutive points, but then Drake countered with an 8-2 scoring run and led 14-8 when Iowa sophomore Dom Uhl stepped to the free throw line with 13:03 left in the first half.
Uhl made both free throws, Gesell followed with a 3-point basket and the Hawkeyes were well on their way to a 14-0 scoring run. Clemmons capped the run by making a 3-pointer that expanded Iowa’s lead to 22-14 with 7:55 left before halftime.
Drake then closed the first half on a 16-8 scoring run to even the score at 30-30 at halftime. Uhl drew the loudest ovation in the first half by making a shot from beyond mid-court, but it came slightly after the halftime buzzer.
Iowa blocked nine shots in the first half and held Drake scoreless for nearly nine minutes, and yet the game still was tied at halftime.
Uthoff only played five minutes in the first half and made just one basket after picking up two early fouls. Junior guard Peter Jok also was held to just one basket in the first half on 1-of-7 shooting from the field and finished the game with just four points.
Timmer led Drake with 25 points. He also made three of Drake’s 11 3-point baskets in the first half.