LINCOLN, Neb. — Fran McCaffery returned to the Iowa bench Sunday after serving his two-game suspension for berating an official.
Afterward, the coach had to try to explain the most excruciating loss of a season that is heading south at the worst possible time.
“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for them,” McCaffery said of his players, who dropped a 93-91 overtime contest to Nebraska, a game they once led by 16 points. “We have to understand that we did some really good things in this game. And then we did some things that weren’t so good.”
What wasn’t good? Ten second-half turnovers, for one — the Hawkeyes had only two at halftime.
There also were 11 missed free throws in 32 attempts.
But mainly there was the 38-second sequence in which the Cornhuskers managed to tally 16 points. That was enough to force overtime. That was enough to make you wonder what had happened to the Hawkeye team that had a 21-6 record just 16 days ago. They’ve lost four straight now, heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
“We broke down, defensively, in some key situations and their good players got going,” McCaffery said, referencing Nebraska seniors James Palmer and Glynn Watson Jr. “You’ve got to learn from it and you’ve got to move on.”
“We felt like we played well enough to win for the majority of the game,” Iowa forward Tyler Cook said. “I give them credit because they hit a ton of crazy shots at the end of regulation. Sometimes, the ball bounces that way.”
Next up for Iowa (21-10, 10-10 Big Ten) is an 8:30 p.m. game Thursday in Chicago. That will be against the winner of the Illinois-Northwestern game Wednesday night. Iowa swept Northwestern and blew out Illinois in their lone meeting this season.
Sophomore center Luka Garza, who led Iowa with 25 points Sunday, was already anticipating a chance to turn things around in the postseason.
“I think it will sting (Sunday night) and a little bit (Monday), when we watch the film,” Garza said of the loss to Nebraska. “And when we get to practice, that’s when we’re going to turn it on.
"Everybody’s focus is going to be on whoever we have next. And we’re going to take it out on them.”
Garza has best game in five weeks
Garza had followed the best seven-game stretch of his Hawkeye career with a bumpy eight-game ride. His shot was off and his confidence seemed to follow. On Sunday, he made 10 of 16 from the field and 5 of 6 free throws. He had five offensive rebounds. He drew six fouls. He was a menace.
“We wanted to go to him. We went to him. And he was tremendous,” McCaffery said. “I’m thrilled with not only his efficiency inside, but the way he shot free throws. He got on the glass. … We really needed it.”
Garza was too despondent after the loss to dwell much on his individual performance. But he did say staying out of early foul trouble helped. And he certainly appreciated the concerted effort to run the offense through him.
He’ll be needed again Thursday, and beyond.
A mixed bag for Tyler Cook
Cook leads the Hawkeyes in scoring, at 15 points per game. On Thursday at Wisconsin, he was held scoreless for the first time in his three-year career. He attempted zero free throws in that one.
He was at the line just 2 minutes and 20 seconds into Sunday’s game. Cook made both of those. He made his final two as well, in overtime. But in between, he missed six of seven. It was that kind of game for him.
Cook was aggressive, but not as good as the Hawkeyes need him to be to make a run in the upcoming tournaments. He fouled out with 2:08 left, finishing with nine points, nine rebounds and four assists.
“I thought he was really trying,” McCaffery said of Cook. “I think it was a step in the right direction.”
McCaffery pulled Cook from the game at key stretches late, at one point appearing to yell at him over a defensive lapse. Cook, a team captain, said he felt there were positives to take away from Sunday’s loss. The Hawkeyes competed in this game after three consecutive blowout defeats.
“They were kind of scratching and clawing back and I felt like we stayed together. Through guys making mistakes, we stayed positive. I’m happy with the way guys interacted with each other,” he said.
“We’re normally pretty good at protecting leads down the stretch and they made some crazy shots. We’ve just got to do whatever we can to prevent that from happening again.”