By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Six games into the season and the 14th-ranked Iowa men’s basketball team still is undefeated.
But just barely.
Iowa escaped from Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a 69-68 victory over Pittsburgh on Tuesday in a hotly contested game that was part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
The Hawkeyes trailed for much of the second half before mounting a rally just beyond the midway point of the half.
Senior forward Nicholas Baer made back-to-back 3-point baskets to give Iowa a 59-58 lead with 8 minutes, 29 seconds remaining.
He made another trey to give Iowa a 64-62 lead with six minutes remaining and then received a loud ovation when he was removed from the game with slightly more than 5 minutes left to play.
The former walk-on from Bettendort then returned to the game and made two free throws to give Iowa a 69-66 lead with 56.2 seconds remaining.
Iowa was protecting a 69-68 lead in the final seconds when freshman point guard Connor McCaffery attempted a 3-point shot with the shot clock winding down. His shot from near the top of key bounced off the rim, but Iowa forward Tyler Cook grabbed the offensive rebound and was immediately fouled as he fell to the court with 10.4 seconds left to play. That led to a wild scramble as players from both teams dove on the floor.
Cook then missed both free throws, but Pittsburgh failed to convert on two shots in the closing seconds.
Iowa improved to 6-0 and now has less than 72 hours to prepare for Friday’s Big Ten opener against Wisconsin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Pittsburgh fell to 6-1 under first-year head coach Jeff Capel.
Freshman Joe Wieskamp led three Iowa players in double figures with 18 points. The 6-foot-5 Muscatine native also led Iowa with 11 rebounds.
"We struggled in the first half giving up 46 points, we can't allow that," Wieskamp said. "Coach got on us at halftime, but we just took it and tried to improve in the second half."
Tuesday’s game was the start of a grueling four-game stretch for Iowa that will continue with Friday’s Big Ten opener against Wisconsin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Following the Wisconsin game, Iowa will play at Michigan State on Dec. 3 before returning home to face Iowa State on Dec. 6th at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
With his team trailing 46-40 at hafltime, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery let his players know that he wasn't pleased with their performance. His words seem to inspire his players as Iowa would go on to score the first seven points in the second half and performed much better on defense.
"I thought when I challenged them at halftime in a very direct way they responded and I'm really proud of that," McCaffery said
Iowa responded especially well on defense as Pittsburgh was held to just 22 points in the second half on 29.2 percent shooting from the field.
"We slid our feet, we battled on the glass, we got to the floor and we really fought," McCaffery said.
Pittsburgh entered Tuesday’s game undefeated at 6-0 and filled with new hope and optimism under first-year head coach Jeff Capel.
The Panthers are coming off a horrendous two-year stretch under former head coach Kevin Stallings in which they finished just 4-32 in conference play, including 0-18 last season.
The addition of three freshmen, led by explosive guard Xavier Johnson, and two transfers, has helped to energize Pittsburgh and that has led to better results on the court.
"Congrat to Iowa," Capel said. "A really hard fought game. Both teams competed really hard. I'm proud of my team to have such a young group and come on the road. This was our first true road test against a top team in the country, and to have an opportunity to win down the stretch, I'm proud of our guys."
The first half included nine lead changes, was tied eight times and neither team led by more than seven points during the first 20 minutes.
The Panthers shot a blistering 61.3 percent from the field in the first half, making 19 of 31 field-goal attempts, including 5-of-11 shots from 3-point range.
Johnson led the Panthers with 12 points in the first half as Iowa struggled to contain his quickness on drives to the basket. But he only scored six points in the second half and struggled to finish plays at the basket.
Wieskamp and junior point guard Jordan Bohannon both led Iowa with 11 points in the first half and they both made three 3-point baskets in the first half.
Iowa made 8-of-15 3-point field-goals as a team in the first half and finished 12-for-31 overall from behind the arc..
Iowa also played without 6-8 junior forward Cordell Pemsl for a fifth consecutive game due to an undisclosed injury. It was announced shortly before the tip-off of Tuesday’s game that Pemsl would have season-ending surgery to repair some hardware damage near his knee according to Fran McCaffery.
Pemsl played 14 minutes in the season opener against Missouri-Kansas City, but hasn’t played since then.
Even with Pemsl now out for the season, Fran McCaffery said sophomore forward Jack Nunge still plans to redshirt this season.