By Pat Harty
The real beauty of March Madness is that it can turn a month of sadness and disappointment into pure joy in just two hours.
That was about how long it took the struggling Iowa men’s basketball team to defeat No. 7 seed Cincinnati 79-72 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The same Iowa team that had lost five of its last six games, including a dismal 86-72 setback to Rutgers on Senior Day at Carver Hawkeye Arena, rose to the occasion on college basketball’s biggest stage.
The same Iowa team that scored just 45 points in a 20-point loss at Wisconsin in the next to last game of the regular season, and that trailed Cincinnati by double figures early in the first half on Friday found a way to prevail under the toughest of circumstances.
Freshman forward Joe Wieskamp made two free throws to give Iowa a 75-67 lead with 36.4 seconds left to play.
Cincinnati banked in a 3-pointer in the final seconds to cut the deficit to 77-72, but it was too little and too late as No. 7 seed Iowa held on to win a game that few outside of the Iowa players and coaches expected them to win.
Sophomore center Luka Garza led four Iowa players in double figures with 20 points, while Wieskamp scored 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field.
The Muscatine native also made a 3-point basket to give Iowa a 70-64 lead with less than two minutes to play and that’s when it really started to feel as if Iowa would prevail.
Junior point guard Jordan Bohannon followed with an old-fashioned 3-point play to expand Iowa lead to 73-64 lead with 1:07 remaining.
Victory was all but certain at that point as the Bearcats had no answer for Iowa down the stretch.
Iowa improved to 23-11 on the season and will face the winner of Friday’s game between Tennessee and Colgate on Sunday in the second round. Cincinnati finished the season with a 28-7 record and lost to Iowa for just third time in nine meetings.
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This was Iowa’s third victory in the NCAA Tournament in nine seasons under head coach Fran McCaffery.
The Hawkeyes are now just one win from advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years.
Iowa’s last trip to the Sweet 16 came in Tom Davis’ final season as head coach in 1999. The Hawkeyes lost to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Sweet 16.
Friday's victory marked the first time that Iowa has defeated a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament since its march to the Sweet 16 in 1999.
The 6-foot-6 Wieskamp wasn't even born when Iowa last advanced to the Sweet 16, but he played with the poise and confidence of a veteran on Friday on both ends of the floor.
The Bearcats bolted to an 18-5 lead and dominated the glass in the first half of Friday's game. But Iowa kept chipping away at the lead and cut the deficit to 36-31 when Bohannon made a fade-away jumper right before the halftime buzzer.
So at the point, Iowa had withstood Cincinnati’s initial blow and there was reason to be optimistic heading into the second half.
The Bearcats struggled from 3-point range in the first half, making just 2-of-12 attempts, while Iowa made 4-of-11 shots from behind the arc in the first half.
One major concern for Iowa in the first half was on the boards where the Bearcats had a 21-15 rebounding advantage, including 9-3 on the offensive boards.
Cincinnati also had an 11-2 advantage in second-chance points in the first half, largely because of its work on the boards.
Garza and Wieskamp both led Iowa in scoring in the first half with 10 points, while the 6-0 Bohannon led Iowa with five rebounds in the opening half.
Garza made all four of his field-goal attempts in the first half, but junior forward Tyler Cook missed five of his six attempts from the field in the first half.
Iowa was down at halftime, but certainly not out of it.
The players could have wilted under the pressure after Cincinnati raced to an early double-digit lead, but they didn’t.
They persevered and then gave themselves a chance to win in the second half, which they did.
The NCAA Tournament is all about surviving and advancing and Iowa did that on Friday. The victory didn't come easy, but that's to be expected when a 10-seed defeats a seven seed.
Friday's victory also extended the career of forward Nicholas Baer, Iowa's lone senior. His teammates were determined to make the Big Dance so they could send Baer out in the style and they have accomplished that goal and then some.