Improved confidence helps McCabe break out


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Matt Gatens still can't forget a play Zach McCabe made — never mind that it happened 10 days ago.

Just under four minutes remained, and then-No. 13 Michigan was chipping into Iowa's 60-48 lead when Bryce Cartwright's misfired 3-pointer caromed to the top of the key. Failed attempts to grab the ball by Gatens and two Michigan players saw it ricochet to midcourt. But instead of haphazardly flailing at the ball, McCabe dove across the floor, skidding until he secured the rebound. Gatens hit a 3 moments later to secure Iowa's upset of the Wolverines on Jan. 14.

The effort earned such a prominent place in Gatens' mind that he brought it up after hundreds of plays from a full week's worth of practices and another game since.

"A game-changing play," the Iowa senior guard said on Tuesday — and after playing in 113 career games, Gatens should know. "It just shows how tough the kid is, taking charges, stuff like that. A guy that can get on the floor is a guy that every team needs. All of us could probably do more of that."

That kind of tenacity has accompanied McCabe's play since the beginning of his Hawkeye career. But now, as a sophomore, he is combining his hustle with new-found maturity to become a more complete player.

The 6-7 forward most recently exemplified that transformation in a 75-68 loss to Purdue on Jan. 17. He started inauspiciously, missing his first shot from the field and two of his first three from the free-throw line.

He finished with a career-high 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the floor.

McCabe wouldn't have responded as well last season if faced with similar early game struggles. As a freshman who coach Fran McCaffery said "made a lot of freshman mistakes," McCabe was often plagued by self-doubt.

"It hurt me," McCabe said. "Getting in the game, I wasn't confident in my abilities."

He credited conversations late last season with McCaffery and his parents for helping him remain positive.

"They just told me, 'If things don't go well, just keep playing as hard as you can,' " McCabe said. "That's what I did. I continued it through the off-season and just tried to stay confident."

If the Purdue game was an early peak in the Sioux City native's career, the previous four games served as an appropriate precursor. McCabe is averaging 11.2 points per game over his last five. Prior to that stretch, he averaged 7.1.

The 20-year-old's aggressiveness also earned him as many free-throw attempts (21) in his last five games as he shot in Iowa's previous 15 games combined.

"What you're seeing now is a much more effective, and then ultimately, a much more confident player," McCaffery said. "He's attacking the basket. He's making jumpers. He's defending much better. He's staying out of foul trouble. He's taking advantage of what he's learned in the last year and a half, and using it to his advantage."

Though McCabe's 20-point game caught others' attention, he didn't sound particularly impressed with himself. Asked what led to his career night, he smiled and shrugged before laughing it off.

"I think I had open shots, and I was able to hit them. I had other opportunities to get to the basket and I took those," he said. "That was a good performance, but you just have to keep building. It was a loss, so it's not that big for me right now."

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