The experience, Cordell Pemsl said, makes all the difference when the crucible of February starts to squeeze college basketball teams.
Pemsl is a fourth-year junior forward, and he’s been through a lot at Iowa — “a roller coaster,” is how he described it.
Bakari Evelyn is a graduate transfer, a fifth-year well-traveled player with time running out in his college career.
At times this season, they’ve been lost in Iowa’s rotation.
The backcourt was crowded when everyone was healthy, and Evelyn was scrambling for minutes and sometimes, he said, that hurt his game.
The frontcourt has been just as crowded, but Pemsl was sometimes his worst enemy. His arrest for drunken driving in September cost him Iowa’s exhibition game and the season opener, and then his arrest for driving with a revoked license last week cost him the game at Indiana.
And a lot of his struggles, he said, came from his own lack of confidence.
But Evelyn and Pemsl have played a lot of minutes in their careers, in arenas big and small.
February is starting to put on its squeeze, and when the Hawkeyes needed help on Thursday night, Evelyn and Pemsl responded.
The 85-76 win over Ohio State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was delivered, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, by the only two players he used off the bench.
“No way,” McCaffery said, “we win without them.”
Evelyn matched his season high with 15 points in 29 minutes. Pemsl scored nine points, one off his season high, and tied his season high with eight rebounds while playing almost 19 minutes.
Older and wiser counts in the vise of the final weeks.
“This isn’t the NBA,” Pemsl said. “At this level, experience plays a big part in it. Knowing different situations, game styles, being able to prepare, the long season, it’s a grind. I remember my freshman year, it wasn’t easy. You really see who’s built for it here coming down the stretch.”
McCaffery went down the checklist of the night for Pemsl and Evelyn.
“Did it at both ends of the court,” McCaffery said. “Cordell’s got eight rebounds and nine points. Bakari with all the threes (he had three three-pointers), driving the ball, making great decisions.”
“They played well. Made shots. Stepped up,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, providing his own list. “The guys that haven’t really done that a whole lot for them stepped up and made shots.”
Luka Garza, the Big Ten’s leading scorer who had 24 points to extend his streak of conference games of 20 or more points to 12, knew what he had seen in Evelyn and Pemsl off the court.
“They make moves,” the junior center said. “They do things. We want that to translate to the floor.
“(Pemsl is) a very, very gifted passer. But sometimes he passes when he could score. So I tried to tell him that. He played with a lot of confidence tonight, like he has in the past. I don’t want to say ‘his former self,’ because he’s always been himself.
“Bakari, he’s stayed the course the entire year. His mental toughness has gotten so much better.”
Iowa’s rotation, thin all season, was heavily limited as guard CJ Fredrick missed his second consecutive game with a sprained ankle.
“With CJ out, we knew there were minutes available,” Pemsl said.
Evelyn felt the same way. The backcourt was a numbers game early in the season — there was Fredrick, Jordan Bohannon, Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery in different roles.
But Bohannon had hip surgery before Christmas and his season was over. Fredrick missed two games earlier in Big Ten play with a stress reaction in his left foot, and now his right ankle is keeping him out indefinitely.
“He’s a really good player,” McCaffery said of Evelyn. “But ever since he got here in the summertime, that’s how he plays. He drives it. He kicks it. He’s got great feel. He’s got a great temperament. He plays defense. He sticks his nose on the glass (for rebounds). He can make threes.
“I think he was pressing early. We still had (Bohannon). And (Evelyn) was trying to find his place. And, no fault of his, we were playing him out of position, kind of on the wing a little more. He’s good there, but he’s good with the ball.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” Evelyn said. “I would have liked to have played (more) early in the year, but things happen for a reason. I think every game is a new game. Every game has a new type of flow, a rhythm to it.”
The 20th-ranked Hawkeyes (19-8 overall, 10-6 Big Ten) are in a tie with Michigan State for third place in the conference, a half-game behind second-place Penn State with four games to play.
Iowa, now 12-1 at home this season with an 11-game winning streak, led 27-8 in the first 10 minutes and never let the No. 25 Buckeyes (17-9, 7-8) get closer than seven points, and that was in the final seconds with the outcome already determined.
That quick start seemed to gas the Hawkeyes. Evelyn and Pemsl provided quality minutes.
Pemsl made all four of his shots, and after one basket he raced down court, pointing to himself and saying, “I’m back.”
Asked who that statement was directed at, Pemsl laughed.
“Me and my guys,” he said. “I was letting them know, ‘Hey, I still got it. Still got it in my bag.’ They wanted to see me do it. So I finally did it, and everyone was happy about it.
“I’ve just been trying to tell myself lately, regardless of how much you’ve played, who you’re on the floor with, situation, time, score, whatever, you just play as hard as you can. I know that sounds cliche, but that’s really all I’ve been doing. I’m not playing to not make mistakes anymore. I’m playing loose, playing like myself.”
It was four games ago, in a 72-65 win over Illinois, when the Hawkeyes had zero bench points.
“Keep working,” Evelyn said. “Keep grinding.”
Evelyn was asked if he and Pemsl had talked before the game about the opportunity ahead.
“I wouldn’t say we talked too much,” he said. “I just gave him a look like, ‘You know what time it is.’”