Leistikow’s thoughts off Iowa’s loss at Penn State: Frustration, pain add up for Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Iowa has played four double-overtime men’s basketball games in the 12-year Fran McCaffery era. All four have occurred on the road. And all four have resulted in losses, including Monday’s 90-86 decision at Penn State.

Naturally, playing 50 minutes of basketball only to lose and then face a late-night flight home is going to come with frustration and what-ifs.

There were plenty of things at fault in this loss, which dropped the Hawkeyes to 14-7 overall and a precarious 4-6 in Big Ten Conference play with a quick road-game turnaround at No. 16 Ohio State on Thursday.

Three points of frustration:

The shooting accuracy suffered. After the Hawkeyes battled back from a 1-for-10 shooting start to take a 34-32 halftime lead, they connected on just 15 of 49 attempts (30.6%) the rest of the way. They were 4-for-16 in the two overtimes (25%), with one of those makes being an inconsequential 3-pointer by Keegan Murray with 1 second left for Iowa’s final points. That’s not going to cut it on the Big Ten road.

The three primary ball-handlers — Joe Toussaint, Ahron Ulis and Jordan Bohannon — combined to shoot 0-for-18 from the floor, including 0-for-13 on two-pointers, in 80:42 of court time.

Iowa guard Ahron Ulis (4) dribbles the ball around Penn State's Seth Lundy (1) during the first overtime Monday at Penn State. Ulis, Joe Toussaint, Ahron Ulis and Jordan Bohannon combined to shoot 0-for-18 Monday.

The rebounding continues to be a problem. Yeah, this topic has entered “broken record” territory. Penn State, which doesn’t have a ton of size, outrebounded Iowa by 10 (53-43). The Hawkeyes are the worst team in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding, and that reared its ugly head again Monday.

Iowa has preached that effort is a big part of being competitive on the boards, but there’s no evidence that this category can drastically improve. The Hawkeyes are going to have to excel in other categories, and they’re not doing that right now.

If that Myles Dread 3 doesn’t go … Iowa probably wins. The Hawkeyes were leading 78-75 in the waning seconds of the first overtime. But Dread — who had been 1-for-5 from 3 to that point — tossed up an off-balance, top-of-the-key try over excellent defense from Murray … and swished it with 9 seconds remaining. Replays showed that Dread traveled in getting the space to fire up the challenged look, but nothing was called. That only added to the the Hawkeye frustration that this one got away.

“There’s no easy games in this league. Every game, you have to come ready to play,” said Patrick McCaffery, who finished with 16 points for Iowa. “If you don’t, you will lose. We weren’t exactly ready at the beginning, but we fought back.”

The three previous double-overtime losses under Fran McCaffery — 101-89 at Minnesota and 93-90 at Nebraska in the 2016-17 season; and 74-70 at Wisconsin in the 2012-13 season.

The last time Iowa won a double-OT game? You’d have to go back to the Todd Lickliter era to find a 75-69 home win vs. Penn State in 2009. Talk about frustration.

Connor McCaffery felt the fire, then the pain

You have to feel for the Hawkeyes’ fifth-year senior. In addition to recovering from two hip surgeries, he’s dealt with back and ankle injuries this season. And now, during one of the best games of his career Monday, he departed in agony with what turned out to be a dislocated right shoulder.

McCaffery said he got hit in the bicep (unintentionally) by the knee of Penn State’s Seth Lundy, and the next time he raised his arm he felt searing pain and had to alert referee Larry Scirotto that he needed to come out of the game. The shoulder was back in place after the game, and he had an MRI scheduled for Tuesday to assess any further damage.

While playing through injuries, McCaffery’s shot has been off most of the year – just 5-for-28 this season entering Monday – but caught fire against the Nittany Lions. He canned four first-half 3-pointers, including three on back-to-back-to-back possessions to send Iowa to its biggest lead of the night at 34-30.

“He’s always been a really good shooter. He makes 3s in practice,” his younger brother, Patrick, said. “I knew there was going to be a game where he would go off, especially with how they were guarding him.”

Iowa's Connor McCaffery (30) is assisted off of the court after injuring a shoulder during the second half of Monday's game at Penn State. He made four 3-pointers in the first half.

Connor is aware that there are a lot of fans who deride his play and poor shooting percentages. He went 0-for-3 from deep in Thursday’s 83-73 loss to Purdue.

“Obviously I missed shots in the Purdue game. I know that as well as anybody,” he said, smiling. “Coming into this game, I wasn’t going to not shoot. Just tried to be aggressive.

“They’re a good defensive team. Me shooting an open three, that’s a good shot.”

He had 12 points and six rebounds in 16:25 of court time. His previous season high in scoring was five points.

“I feel terrible for him,” his father said. “He finally feels like he was in a good place — shooting it with confidence, driving it with confidence.”

And now this. His status was unknown for Thursday.

Iowa's Patrick McCaffery (22) drives the ball to the basket during the second half against Penn State on Monday. He finished with 16 points.

Keegan Murray’s foul trouble adds to the Iowa’s pain

There might be good news for Murray, a projected NBA first-round pick, in his future: In the pros, you get six fouls instead of five before fouling out.

Murray has been relegated to Iowa’s bench for long stretches in each of the last two games, both frustrating losses. He sat the final 11:20 of the first half against Penn State after picking up his second foul. He sat the final 11:19 of the first half against Purdue for the same reason.

This is one of the final 20 players up for the Wooden Award, and he’s not been able to make much of an impact in the first halves of important Hawkeye games. He had zero points and zero rebounds at halftime Monday on 0-for-5 shooting. By the end of the game, he had 21 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes. It was his final-minute heroics in regulation that saved Iowa. His 3-pointer with 54 seconds to go and miraculous tip-in off a Bohannon air ball helped Iowa force the extra session at 66-66.

“That’s one of the most incredible plays I’ve seen,” Fran McCaffery said. “You’re thinking, if (Bohannon’s heave) goes in, we win, if it misses, we lose. … But to not give up on the play and have the wherewithal under the basket to tip it back in, what a great play that was.”

McCaffery’s two-foul strategy has never changed and won’t change. He likes his players to be able to play freer in the second half. Murray knows that’s the case, so he knows he needs to keep his foul total at one or fewer going forward in the first 20 minutes.

“It sucks. It sucks not getting into a rhythm offensively and defensively because of foul trouble,” Murray said. “I’m trying not to get in foul trouble in the first half, but things aren’t going my way right now. I just have to keep learning from it and try and play without fouling the best I can the rest of the year.”

Remember, Murray is brand new to national stardom after being a bench player last year for the Hawkeyes. Murray is still figuring out how to pick his spots to be aggressive on defense and in rebounding without putting himself in a position to get called for silly fouls. That was something last year’s Wooden winner, Luka Garza, honed over time at Iowa.

There’s not much time to wallow

After a two-overtime game and postgame interviews, the team boarded a plane back to Iowa. Patrick McCaffery said he’d be at class at 9:30 Tuesday morning. The team flies right back to the Eastern time zone on Wednesday in preparation for Thursday’s game at Ohio State. Iowa hosts Minnesota on Sunday before going back east again next Thursday at Maryland.

This is a tiring stretch, with two more games this week and already 50 minutes of basketball on its legs. The urgency, too, is amped up in trying to get a big win. Iowa won at Ohio State in the final road game of the 2020-21 Big Ten season to all but secure a top-two NCAA Tournament seed. If the Hawkeyes could repeat that feat – albeit with fans this time around – that would certainly be one way to wipe out the bad taste of this loss.

Ohio State is coming off its own crushing loss on the final shot by Purdue’s Jayden Ivey.

The Big Ten? It’s a relentless grind. The key for the Hawkeyes is to not let Monday’s loss crush them emotionally … and quickly turn the page.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.