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Leistikow's thoughts: A strong finish, a satisfying win and a Saturday semi for Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament

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INDIANAPOLIS — “Let’s Go Hawks!” chants boomed from the Lucas Oil Stadium stands late in Friday’s last Big Ten Conference quarterfinal. Iowa fans, seeing their first game action in-person of the 2020-21 season, were ready to see their team get to the finish line and an elusive semifinal of the league tournament.

Boy, did their Hawkeyes ever finish.

Back-to-back buckets in the lane from Joe Wieskamp and driving layin from Jordan Bohannon broke open a 52-52 game in the final three minutes, and third-seeded Iowa hung on to beat sixth-seeded Wisconsin, 62-57.

That's thrice as nice against Wisconsin, a three-game season sweep of the Badgers for Iowa, which rolls into a Saturday semifinal of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in 15 years.

This was a determined effort, not a pretty one. Iowa shot just 2-for-20 from 3-point range yet … found a way.

“Unreal win. It was ugly. I’m not going to lie to you," Bohannon said. "Our defense, at the end of the game … I think they scored one basket in the last nine minutes of the game. We really locked down this past month or so.”

The Hawkeyes (21-7) will meet second-seeded Illinois (21-6) at 2:30 p.m. CT.

Defense got this one to the finish line. Iowa got stops on 20 of Wisconsin's 31 second-half possessions. No moment was more emblematic of this defensive suffocation than Wieskamp swatting a baseline shot attempt by Trice off the floor with 20 seconds to go and Iowa leading, 58-54. 

A celebration ensued. And as Hawkeye fans exited Lucas Oil, they rattled off another "Let's Go Hawks!" chant for good measure. They'll be back Saturday. And they'll probably bring more friends.

About 8,000 tickets per session are permitted in spaced-out seating, but the noise is evident and prevalent when the fans are cheering.

"Showing up to Carver(-Hawkeye) Arena and it's empty ... and to walk on the court tonight and see people yelling your name, seeing family there, it was surreal," Bohannon said. "It was almost like a dream, thinking about what we've been through as a country over the last 12 months. ... We've been waiting for this."

Wieskamp was uncertain to play with a sprained ankle, but he stepped up and played 35 big minutes.

Wieskamp scored with 3:01 to play on a post-up against D'Mitrik Trice, then again with 2:35 left on a nice fast-break feed from CJ Fredrick to push Iowa's lead to 56-52. He ended up with 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting. Those were probably Iowa's two biggest baskets, not bad from a guy that seriously sprained his ankle Sunday against the Badgers.

"I felt pretty good. I got a lot of treatment throughout the week. I was living in the training room," Wieskamp said. "I was icing it not-stop. But this is what every college athlete dreams of. … It was going to take a lot to hold me out of this.

"I gave it my all. I'll get lots of treatment after this see how it feels tomorrow."

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he would have pulled Wieskamp if he didn't look effective, but he was encouraged with the way Wieskamp performed at less than 100%.

"I was really impressed with him," McCaffery said. "... I didn't see anything at all in his performance that looked like he was a step slow. He was out there competing and having fun."

After Iowa’s game, Jordan Bohannon vehemently defended his coach.

In making a rare opening statement, the fifth-year senior was clearly bothered by some events of the last week. He heard about Wisconsin coach Greg Gard not getting fined despite ripping into officials after Sunday’s game in Iowa City. Then he saw Michigan coach Juwan Howard get ejected after he and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon were jawing in Friday’s first quarterfinal.

As Bohannon sees it — and he’s right — if McCaffery had done any of those things, he would’ve been blasted by national media. But, in Bohannon’s view, other coaches don’t get vilified.

“I think Coach McCaffery has been treated very unfairly across the country in how he’s perceived,” Bohannon said. “He gets a T, and he’s portrayed as a bad person. Anyone who knows him as a person knows that’s not the case.

“I love Coach McCaffery.”

The Hawkeyes fell apart late in the first half, but reversed course in the second.

Iowa scored just eight points in the final 10:48 of the first half, an uncharacteristically poor showing for the nation’s No. 2 adjusted offense.

For the first half, the Hawkeyes (No. 4 nationally in 3-point percentage) were 0-for-10 from 3. And team with the second-best turnover percentage in the country (at 13.3%) coughed it up eight times (for a 23.5% percentage) in the first 20 minutes. That included five turnovers in the final 3:12 of the half, two by always-steady CJ Fredrick.

It just didn’t look like the Hawkeyes, at all. They were lucky to be down only 32-26 at the break.

They looked like themselves in the second half: 12 assists, zero turnovers. Efficient and victorious.

Iowa’s next opponent, Illinois, looks like one of the two best teams in college basketball right now.

The Illini just toyed with Rutgers in Friday’s third quarterfinal, 90-68, showing a combination of athleticism and power to overwhelm the Scarlet Knights. Illinois’ rebounding edge was a ridiculous 44-19, including 17 offensive boards.

Illinois has now won 12 of its last 13 games, a run that includes an 80-75 home win against Iowa on Jan. 29. Iowa players stewed over that loss, in part because Illinois was not called for a single foul in the final 10 minutes of a physical game. An overturned goaltending call also cost Iowa two points in the final minute. Afterward,  Wieskamp stated, “I just hope we get the opportunity to play them in the Big Ten Tournament.”

Now the Muscatine native has his wish, and it should be a doozy. The Illini will likely be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced Sunday; Iowa will most likely be a No. 2. And the Hawkeyes are just about as hot as the Illini, having won eight of their last nine 

This matchup will follow the noon clash of Michigan-Ohio State. CBS certainly got the two Big Ten semifinals it wanted, with four top-10 teams vying for a spot in Sunday’s championship.

McCaffery can finally take “never reached a Saturday semifinal” off his Big Ten résume.

The Hawkeyes improved to 5-9 in the conference tournament under McCaffery, but all four previous wins had occurred on a Wednesday or Thursday. This Friday win at the Big Ten Tournament was not only McCaffery’s first in four tries (lost to Michigan State in 2012 and 2013, lost to Michigan in 2019), it was the program’s first since 2006.

This is the highest seeded team McCaffery has had in 10 Big Ten Tournaments. Remember, McCaffery won three straight conference-tournament titles in his final three years at Siena before being hired at Iowa in 2010.

"We took care of business," McCaffery said. "That's a really good team we beat."

Luka Garza's postgame news conference lasted 80 seconds.

Usually one answer for the media-friendly Hawkeye center can go longer than that, but Garza's answers to three questions Friday were short and to the point ... and he was ready to get back to the team hotel. The Hawkeyes had to be up by 8 a.m. for their daily COVID-19 tests and get ready for one of the hottest teams in America.

Garza, after scoring a game-high 24 points, noted that Friday's win "was a great feeling, but we understand it's just one of three games we want to win in this tournament, and there's six more after that (in the NCAAs). We're locked in on Illinois right now."

Some finishing thoughts ...

Garza moved from No. 13 to No. 8 on the Big Ten's all-time scoring list. He now has 2,225 career points, the most by any player in the conference this century. Up next on the list at No. 7: Michigan State's Steve Smith, at 2,263. ... The bench trio of Keegan Murray, Patrick McCaffery and Joe Toussaint made one basket each after Garza's final deuce with 10:54 to go. Those three combined for hustle plays in their limited minutes: six offensive rebounds and five blocked shots. ... In Iowa's two best wins of the season, the Hawkeyes held their opponent to 57 points: at Ohio State on Feb. 28 and now this. Wisconsin's only made field goal in the game's final 9:20 was a Trice 3-pointer with 12 seconds left. Bohannon stepped up and canned two free throws after that to put the win on ice.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.