By RICK BROWN
DES MOINES, Iowa — The growth of the University of Iowa’s men’s basketball team the past two games has been encouraging. And that progress can be described in one word: defense.
The Hawkeyes took pride in their defense for a second straight game and the result was a 69-46 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday in The Hy-Vee Classic at Wells Fargo Arena.
This came on the heels of a 78-64 victory over Iowa State in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Dec. 8.
“Iowa State is the first time we really put it together,” said UI head coach Fran McCaffery. “That’s great, but can you put it together again? That’s the challenge moving forward. We’ve shown what we’re capable of. Now, can we do that on a consistent basis?”
Saturday had a touch of the unexpected, too, because it was the first game in eight days after final exams.
“It’s a challenge for any team in the country coming off finals,” McCaffery said. “The only thing I can tell you is our practices were good. The intensity level, focus, and concentration were good. When we walked into the arena I felt we were going to be OK because the guys were locked into the game plan.”
Peter Jok led the Hawkeyes (6-5) with 21 points, making all three of his 3-point attempts and 9-of-15 shots from the field. He also had eight rebounds. Nicholas Baer came of the bench to score 11 points and grab 11 rebounds. He also had three assists, two blocked shots, and a steal.
“Nicholas Baer is just a special player,” McCaffery said. “Every time he’s on the bench I’m thinking how am I going to get him back in? He has an incredible ability to come off the bench and impact a game right away. He comes in and executes; he studies the game from the bench. He rarely makes mistakes. He’s a valuable person in so many ways.”
Iowa shot 48.3 percent from the field. Just four of its 13 turnovers came in the second half. The Hawkeyes led by double figures for the final 25 minutes of the game.
But those numbers don’t define this victory.
These numbers do: Northern Iowa (5-5) shot just 19.4 percent from the field in the first half and 26.8 percent for the game. That included 6-of-26 shooting from 3-point range. Iowa was much improved on the perimeter defensively, challenging outside shots, and it protected the paint.
An Iowa team that allowed Memphis to score 54 points in the paint and Seton Hall 50 held the Panthers to a season-low 46 points for the game. Just 14 of the Panthers’ points came in the paint.
Here’s another number of interest: The Hawkeyes are now 62-2 when holding opponents under 61 points over the last six seasons.
“Our defense was phenomenal, because we’ve done it two games in a row and against two really good teams,” McCaffery said. “(UNI) didn’t play well today, but the reason they didn’t play well is because we defended the way we did. If we had defended like we did earlier in the year, it would have been a totally different game. This is a big step for us.”
Another piece of the improved defense has been better rebounding. Iowa had a 43-29 advantage on the glass and an 11-1 edge in second-chance points.
“We knew we had to keep them out of the paint, and make them take contested jump shots,” said freshman post Cordell Pemsl, who added 10 points and five rebounds. “That was our goal.”
Mission accomplished. And with just two nonconference games remaining before the start of Big Ten play Dec. 28 at Purdue, the timing couldn’t be better.
“It’s exciting because we know we’re playing at a level (defensively) where we can compete,” Pemsl said.
Jok, the lone senior starter and the nation’s No. 5 scorer entering play Saturday, said improved defense is the result of better cohesiveness.
“We just bought in,” Jok said. “Our team chemistry has been good, too.”
Baer said the team’s defensive effort against Iowa State was a confidence boost. Saturday’s effort backed that up.
“I think we can use these games as building blocks moving forward,” Baer said.
The Hawkeyes return to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for two games next week, hosting North Dakota on Tuesday and Delaware State on Thursday. Both games start at 8 p.m. (CT).