IOWA CITY, Ia. — With what had to be his final ounce of available energy, Nicholas Baer lunged toward a Rutgers player and committed a foul as he spun toward the sideline.
After the whistle blew, he bent over with hands on knees and looked to the rafters with 1 minute to go and Iowa trailing by 13 points.
He was spent.
The beloved Iowa senior left it all out there on Senior Day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Hawkeyes couldn't follow suit.
If you watched the game, you don’t need me to tell you this was Iowa’s flattest, most listless performance of the season.
Rutgers 86, Iowa 72.
The juxtaposition of Iowa playing with so little energy on a day that honored its most energetic influence was hard to miss.
And hard to explain.
“I just felt bad for him,” junior guard Jordan Bohannon said of Baer’s home finale. “I wanted to have Senior Night go a little differently, especially everything he’s done for this community.
“There’s a lot of people that want to be like him when they grow up. That just speaks volumes for what kind of person he is.”
Baer finished with a team-best 17 points and grabbed six rebounds in 21 minutes in his usual spark-plug role off the bench.
But other than him, March certainly came in like a lamb for the Hawkeyes.
Rutgers owned the paint, outscoring Iowa near the basket by a margin of 36-18.
The Scarlet Knights owned the 3-point line, too, converting an uncharacteristic 11-of-23 from long range to Iowa’s 8-of-29.
They also ran better, with a 19-8 advantage in fast-break points.
College basketball’s most important month couldn’t be off to a more concerning start for the Hawkeyes.
“We’re hitting a bump in the road right now,” Baer said. “But we’re going to have to adjust. I’m confident that we have a veteran group here. We’re not playing our best basketball right now, but we’re excited that we’re going to turn it around.”
Iowa fans wish they shared Baer's confidence.
Were the Hawkeyes just spent after a long week?
A 20-point loss at Ohio State on Tuesday sent up red flags that the defense is becoming increasingly insufficient, and it was bad again Saturday.
Did they truly miss their suspended coach?
Fran McCaffery, slapped with a two-game penalty for his tirade toward official Steve McJunkins after the Ohio State game, watched Saturday's action from his office. And the Hawkeyes certainly lacked their coach’s fire.
Players were obviously quick to dismiss those things as excuses for the loss.
Bohannon, instead, pointed to Iowa's continued struggles with shooting. The Hawkeyes are a top-10 team nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, but have looked helpless on offense at times lately.
Bohannon (15 points) was held to 4-for-12 shooting. Isaiah Moss, who scored 17 points against Rutgers last time, was shut out. Joe Wieskamp, the Piscataway hero on Feb. 16 as Iowa improved to 20-5, was 1-for-7 Saturday. Luka Garza (10 points) was a team-worst minus-24.
During one second-half stretch, the Hawkeyes went 10 minutes, 12 seconds between baskets. They trailed by 21 points with five minutes to go.
“We were missing free throws, missing bunnies,” Bohannon said. “I thought I had a lot of good looks in the second half that didn’t fall. Just a weird night shooting-wise. It happens like that, though, especially at the end of the year.
“Legs starting to get a little tired. Not to use that as an excuse, but that’s just what happens in the Big Ten.”
Iowa sure looked tired.
Bohannon admitted steady energy was missing Saturday.
"(Effort) was up and down. Inconsistent at times," he said. "It’s tough when you’re not making shots you think you should be making to play with that edge we’ve been playing with this entire season."
A team that was rolling out to big leads early in the year is falling way behind in games now. Sure, the competition’s tougher — and, to be clear, Rutgers (14-14, 7-11) isn't nearly as average as its record suggests.
And yes, Iowa is still a solid NCAA Tournament team at 21-8 overall and 10-8 in Big Ten Conference play.
But the eye test tells you this isn’t the same team that manhandled Michigan to start the month of February.
This is a team that now has to find itself and find its way through March. A daunting trip to Wisconsin, on Ethan Happ's Senior Day, comes next Thursday.
"We’ve got to keep battling through, get these guys prepared, and not lose our confidence,” said assistant coach Andrew Francis, who filled in for McCaffery in the head seat Saturday; assistant Kirk Speraw will have the reins in Madison. "These guys have worked too hard to be in this position. There’s still a lot of season left.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.