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Iowa rallies to beat Cincinnati in NCAA Tournament first round

Iowa's Nicholas Baer celebrates during the second half

Iowa's Nicholas Baer celebrates during the second half against Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Nationwide Arena on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Getty Images/Elsa

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Iowa never lost sight of where it stood, which was no easy task because this supposedly neutral site seemed like a big home game for the opponent. Trailing big on the scoreboard and bigger in terms of fan support, the Hawkeyes recognized they would be fine if they could just hold their poise.

“I think those timeouts in that stretch when it was 18-5, those were key. Everyone was communicating. It was a great feeling,” said Luka Garza, the Iowa big man who wound up scoring a game-high 20 points and leading a comeback that beat Cincinnati, 79-72, and sent his team into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

That outcome sure did not seem likely in the early going, when Cincinnati, playing only about two hours from campus, appeared headed toward a blowout victory. But Iowa switched to a zone defense, drew within five at halftime, shot better in the second half and off it went.

Players did not second-guess each other and followed the calm lead of coach Fran McCaffery, of all people. The same Fran McCaffery who was suspended for two games last month by his own university for a profane postgame outburst against an official.

“When you see me get hot-blooded, there are various reasons for that, and it happens, despite what some people might think, very rarely,” the Philadelphia native said after Friday's game.

“At crunch time and in key moments of the game, you can’t lose your mind and start yelling at them. It’s only going to lead to more mistakes.”

While Garza led the Hawkeyes (23-11)  in points and rebounds (seven) and led to Cincinnati big man Nysier Brooks fouling out, the player who perhaps best epitomized Iowa was freshman Joe Wieskamp. In his first March Madness appearance, he started shakily. “A lot of times when that happens, guys struggle for 40 minutes,” McCaffery said.

Not Wieskamp, the all-time high scorer in Iowa high school basketball. He got into a groove late in the first half and stayed there, finishing with 19 points.

“I’ve played in so many games in my career, I just tried to think of this as just the next game, the next opponent. I tried not to think about how big a stage this truly was,” Wieskamp said. “I just let the game come to me. Sometimes guys struggle when they try to force things, but our guys were doing a great job, finding me.”

He finished with one more point than did Jarron Cumberland, the player of the year in the American Athletic Conference for Cincinnati (28-7).

“That’s a team that prides itself on being tougher than the opponent,” Garza said. “With 28 wins, they’ve done it to a lot of teams they’ve faced. We had to show out there that we’re tough, too. It was just amazing, being out there. Just crazy. And we’re not done yet.”

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