COLUMBUS, Ohio — After months spent talking about a possible Big Ten Conference championship, the goal for Iowa's basketball players has to be re-calibrated.
"We just have to work on getting back on track," senior guard Anthony Clemmons said, his voice despondent after the Hawkeyes' 68-64 loss to Ohio State, "and playing the way we used to play.”
Sure, Iowa could still gain a share of the program's first Big Ten crown in 37 years by winning out and counting on Maryland to beat Indiana (23-6, 13-3 Big Ten), the Hawkeyes' Tuesday night opponent that has a two-game lead with two to play following Sunday's outcome.
The Hawkeyes (20-8, 11-5) blew this one, plain and simple. They were outscored 12-2 in the last four minutes.
“Everything went wrong," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said in a brief postgame news conference. He walked out of the interview room after about two minutes while a reporter tried to ask a question. "We didn’t execute, we didn’t defend, we didn’t rebound.”
It's understandable that the Hawkeyes are upset. They should be. They've lost three in a row, all against unranked opponents, and they haven't looked the same since a 10-1 conference start.
The current confidence level?
"I don't know," senior star Jarrod Uthoff said bluntly after the Hawkeyes' fourth straight game of shooting 42 percent or less.
The senior has struggled with his shot, as have his teammates.
This was a game Iowa should have won. Ohio State (19-11, 11-6) played without one of its best players in Jae’Sean Tate, and even after an afternoon of up-and-down play, the Hawkeyes had them on the ropes after Mike Gesell’s layup with 4:07 left gave Iowa a 62-56 lead.
But then the offense stopped working. Two straight bad possessions — two Gesell misses, both at the end of the shot clock — led to Ohio State taking a 63-62 lead on Kam Williams’ jumper with 2:04 to go. Peter Jok then missed a 3, and Williams made one for a 66-62 Buckeye lead with 1:00 left. A 10-0 run happened in a blur.
“Defensive lapses, offensive lapses, what can you say?” said Uthoff, who finished with 16 points on 5-for-14 shooting.
Still, Iowa nearly forced overtime. Adam Woodbury's layup and a defensive stop gave the Hawkeyes the ball 94 feet away from tying it, down 66-64 with 7.5 seconds left.
The Iowa center says the team needs better ball movement, better defense.
Gesell dribbled from the backcourt all the way to the rim, but as he elevated with 3 seconds left the ball was batted away from behind by Keita Bates-Diop, and two Marc Loving free throws sealed it.
“I thought I beat everyone to the bucket," said Gesell, who finished with 16 points. "I was trying to make a play at the rim.”
Now Iowa must regroup quickly and host Indiana, which triggered Iowa's decline with an 85-78 win in Bloomington on Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. Tuesday before closing the regular season Saturday at Michigan in an effort to generate some momentum for the postseason.
“We’ve just got to play harder," Clemmons said. "Make sure we stick together as one. Go back to the basics.”
The guard spoke after a 68-64 loss to Ohio State.
“Ball movement, playing better defense," Woodbury said. "A lot of different things.”
Iowa could have taken control of the game early while Ohio State committed 11 first-half turnovers. But the Hawkeyes shot only 39 percent in the first half and missed all seven 3-point attempts while committing an uncharacteristic nine turnovers of their own.
The Hawkeyes’ first 20 minutes were encapsulated by the final exchange, in which they could have held for the last shot down three, but instead Woodbury turned it over and Nicholas Baer fouled Loving with 0.1 seconds left in the half.
Loving, who finished with 25 points, made both free throws for a 35-30 lead.
Twenty minutes and a staggering loss later, Iowa had no choice but to look forward and maintain hope.
There's not much time left to fix this.
“We’re still a good team," Gesell said. "We’ll be fine.”