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Iowa's leading scorer was held without a point in a 65-45 loss at Wisconsins. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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MADISON, Wis. — It’s not often the box score tells the whole story about a basketball game.

But it sure does when contemplating Iowa’s 65-45 loss against No. 21 Wisconsin on Thursday.

The stat sheet reveals a Hawkeye team that was far too passive to win a Big Ten Conference road game.

The Badgers outrebounded Iowa 29-10 in the second half. Seven different Hawkeyes grabbed one offensive rebound; Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ had eight by himself.

Wisconsin outscored Iowa (21-9, 10-9 Big Ten) 36-18 in the paint.

And then there’s this: Not a single Iowa starter got to the free-throw line. Let that sink in. A team that has thrived all winter by attacking the basket shot a season-low six free throws. Four of them came from backup point guard Connor McCaffery.

“Credit to Wisconsin, we weren’t able to get downhill and it felt like we weren’t able to get our post-up opportunities, which, anytime we get it inside is generally when we start racking up fouls,” said Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer, who earned the other two free-throw attempts Thursday.

Iowa shot a season-worst 30.5 percent from the field, settling too often for jump shots that haven’t been falling for six games now. A strong inside presence is typically what opens things up for outside shooters. On this night, the lasting image was of Hawkeye players dribbling toward the basket, meeting a lone defender about 8 feet away, and then turning their back to the rim and looking to pass instead of continuing on, where they might at least have drawn contact.

“I think we could have been more aggressive. I think we settled for a couple of jump shots,” Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said. “They play back on ball-screens, so that was our mindset coming in was that we were going to have a lot of dribble jumpers. We worked on that in practice and felt good about it.”

“I think you see we’re a little tentative at times, if it goes for a couple of games or three games or something not shooting it well,” said Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw, who was at the helm Thursday while head coach Fran McCaffery served out his suspension.

“Sometimes you hit rock bottom before you bounce out of it and get going.”

Whatever “it” is, Iowa needs to get the bounce back in its step soon. There’s one regular-season game remaining — at Nebraska on Sunday — and then it’s on to tournament play. And the meek don’t inherit anything in March.

Hawkeyes point to defense with pride

The Hawkeyes, who have lost three consecutive games for the first time this season, didn’t want the narrative to be entirely negative after what may have been their worst overall performance of the season. That’s understandable.

So they pointed to their defense as a positive. And it’s true — the Hawkeyes limited the best 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten (Wisconsin makes 38.2 percent from there) to a 4-of-20 showing. Iowa held the Badgers five points below their average scoring output.

“How many points did they score?” Iowa forward Tyler Cook responded when asked about the contrast between the way his team is playing now and the way it was throwing its weight around in the first month of the season. “In November, we were scoring 95. The game’s flip-flopped. I think our offensive rhythm, once that comes back, the rest of our game will improve as well.”

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Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer on the temperament of struggling team, the defense against Wisconsin, and the lack of free throws. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Hawkeyes keep it positive in locker room as well

Speraw and his players all said afterward that a lack of confidence is not an issue. The team has lost three games in a row by a total of 54 points, but isn’t about to give up on a season that has produced plenty of stirring moments.

“We’ve got 21 wins with another game to go and then the Big Ten Tournament (next week in Chicago),” Cook said. “That’s why you want to start off your season good because you know you’re going to have rough times.”

Baer was the first player to meet with reporters Thursday. The first question was about the mood of his team.

“We’re not shooting the ball great,” he said, “but we’re staying positive with each other and understand that there’s a lot of basketball to be played.”

The Hawkeyes will clinch the 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament with a win Sunday. They are projected as an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament in Shelby Mast’s latest bracket prediction for USA Today.

There still could be a lot of basketball ahead. Or it could be a mere three games if Iowa doesn’t rediscover its November mentality.

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