CHICAGO — The rubber game between Iowa men’s basketball and Ohio State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament was different from the previous two games. Each team picked up a regular season win in convincing fashion, but Thursday afternoon’s game provided a lot more drama, right down to the final 30 seconds.
In the end, Iowa couldn’t line up enough on either side of the field to advance, losing 73-69 to the Buckeyes. With the loss, Iowa drops to 19-13 and will await its NCAA Tournament seeding on Sunday.
Filip Rebraca led the team with 20 points and seven rebounds, Kris Murray added 17 points, six rebounds and five assists, and Tony Perkins recorded 16 points. It was one of Iowa’s most contested games to date, with a season-high 18 substitutions. Ohio State took the lead with 3:23 left and never looked back.
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“I think we fought well,” coach Fran McCaffery said. “We had a few defensive saves, but probably not enough consecutively. When that happens, you can blame everybody, but I have too much respect for (Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann) and his players, you have to give them credit. They don’t panic, I don’t think we panicked and it happened until the end.”
The question before Thursday’s game was how the Hawkeyes would react after a loss to Nebraska in the regular season finale, a loss that kept Iowa out of the top four seeds. and double the Big Ten tournament. On the one hand, the loss allows for near-maximum rest before the NCAA Tournament, but it’s a bitter silver lining for the defending conference tournament champions.
“I feel like we prepared well and did what the coaches wanted in training,” Rebraca said. “I feel like maybe we didn’t do everything we wanted in the game tonight. And then I guess it’s a plus that we rest more, but we never want that. We want to play for a championship on Sunday.”
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A familiar theme this season hurt Iowa in the first half
The Iowa offense showed promise in the opening minutes of Thursday afternoon. A trio of baskets from Rebraca, Perkins and Patrick McCaffery led to a 3-on-5 start from the field and a 7-4 lead early in the sub-16 minute timeout. But then a familiar and unsettling theme arrived: offensive struggles away from home.
Iowa’s 29 points in the first half was one of the lowest marks of the season. On paper, his shooting percentage of 50% (13 for 26 shots) is a good number, but the offense couldn’t get into a consistent rhythm. The starting guards struggled to initiate the offense, finishing the first half with just 5 combined points and no assists. Most of the points came alone via Rebraca (10 points) and Murray (7). Seven unusual turnovers in the first half prevented the Hawkeyes from gaining momentum and the team had just six assists.
“I think in a game like this, 11 turnovers (in total) is too many,” said Fran McCaffery. “We had a lot of guys fumbling for the ball and we needed that (last lost ball) at the end.”
At home, the Hawkeyes are a nearly 37 percent 3-point shooting team, but struggled to a 2-for-10 first half on Thursday. Overall, Iowa is shooting just 28 percent from beyond the arc away from home this season. It didn’t help that sharpshooter Payton Sandfort committed two early fouls and played just four minutes in the first half. He only played 15 minutes in total and had just 4 points on three shots.
“He was really frustrated,” Fran McCaffery said. “It was unfortunate for him. I think you always think about (playing him with two fouls in the first half) but I felt like Patrick (McCaffery) was playing well and we had a pretty decent defensive effort, we had our defense guys there a bit more. And I wanted him to be able to play free and try to get into the second half. It just didn’t happen for him.
Tony Perkins provided a well-deserved second-half spark
Despite the offensive issues, Iowa’s defensive effort kept the game close. Behind Murray’s 7 points, five rebounds and four assists and Rebraca’s 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, the Hawkeyes trailed just 29-28 at halftime.
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The start of the second half was awkward offensively with two turnovers in the first three possessions, but Iowa’s offense settled in and started to click during a crucial streak. And the spark plug was Perkins, who led the team with 11 points in the second half.
“I didn’t want to lose the match, so I tried to do my best to bring the most energy,” Perkins said. “I told my team that we have 20 minutes left and we are 1 short at half time. Let’s go.”
At 1:25 into the second half, Ohio State’s Sean McNeil knocked down a jumper to give the Buckeyes a 40-39 lead. What followed was a three-minute streak of field goal exchange where the lead changed seven times. Perkins was the aggressor for Iowa during that streak, scoring 7 points as Iowa held on to a 49-48 lead with 10:46 remaining.
Perkins led a strong defensive effort, including two blocks and two interceptions, that kept Iowa close for a three-minute streak from 8:21 to 4:43 when the Hawkeyes failed to record a field goal. A Murray layup broke the tie-scoring drought at 61, but the Buckeyes responded with a 3-pointer on the next possession to regain the lead.
“We know they’re a team that’s not going to give in, so credit them,” said Rebraca. “When we were doing errands, they could do their own errands and get saves.”
The Hawkeyes got back to work behind Perkins’ aggressive play. A driving layup cut the deficit to 64-63 with three minutes remaining. On an Ohio State misfire, Perkins ran across the floor to foul. He got two free throws, but missed both. The Buckeyes responded with a 3-pointer to extend their lead to 67-63 with 1:54 on the clock.
Two clutch plays from Rebraca (two successful free throws) and Murray (a driving layup) pulled Iowa back to a 69-67 deficit with less than a minute left. The Hawkeyes needed a save, but Ohio State’s Roddy Gayle Jr. fouled Connor McCaffery to give the Buckeyes free throws. He did both to extend the lead to 4 points with 33 seconds left.
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Trailing 71-69 with 20 seconds left, Iowa tried to steal an inbound pass from Ohio State. Perkins deflected a pass that led to a 10-second mad dash for the ball. In the end, officials ruled the ball went out on Murray and gave the ball to Ohio State. It was the last swing play that gave the Buckeyes momentum. They hit two free throws to seal the game with less than 10 seconds left.
“Just two teams for the ball,” Murray said. I don’t know exactly what happened. There was a lot of chaos.
The team’s hope was to secure the ball long enough for a timeout or jump ball, as the possession arrow pointed toward Iowa.
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The Hawkeyes had several chances in the final seconds, but missed four shots in the final 30 seconds and couldn’t get over the 4-point bump. A bitter end to the regular season is followed by a bitter loss in Game 1 of the conference tournament.
Now the Hawkeyes must await their NCAA Tournament destination on Selection Sunday.
“They feel bad enough already,” Fran McCaffery said. “I’m not going to come in (the locker room) and walk around the room and talk about what you haven’t done, what you haven’t done. I said I thought we would have had to jump on the (loose) ball at the end and call time out…they fought and I thought that was really positive I kind of reflect more on the whole job than this happens in the last 40 minutes.
“There are a few guys with small injuries here and there, so you can rest for long minutes. Then we’ll get back to work, work on our stuff and find out who we’re playing against.”