Troubling trends emerge late in games as No. 8 Iowa can't close out another Big Ten foe

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — This loss stung the most for Iowa.

You could see it in Jordan Bohannon’s drooped shoulders as he headed to the Assembly Hall locker room. You could feel Luka Garza’s anguish as he stopped and bent at the waist for five long seconds, before straightening up and massaging his back while slowly walking off the court.

There have been four losses in the past five games for a Hawkeye basketball team that entered the week ranked eighth and exits it leaning on each other for answers to a question that cannot be ignored: Why are opposing teams constantly making key plays late to win games?

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Indiana sophomore Armaan Franklin swished a stepback jumpshot with 1.8 seconds remaining to dump Iowa 67-65 Sunday. He had missed eight of his previous nine shots, but the Hawkeyes seem to find ways to create unlikely heroes.

“That’s some grit right there, so that’s impressive for him,” Garza said of Franklin.

Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis gets free for a dunk against Iowa on Sunday at Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers rallied for a 67-65 win and a season sweep of the Hawkeyes.

The Hawkeyes built, then lost, double-digit leads in both halves. Iowa, with a lineup anchored by veteran players, has led in the second half of each of its last four losses, only to falter with the game on the line. That stretch started with a Jan. 21 home loss to the Hoosiers, who own a 10-8 record, 5-6 in Big Ten Conference play, with two of those over a team many predicted would sit atop the league.

Iowa (13-6, 7-5) hasn’t followed the same formula in each setback, but there have been some common themes. One is second-half shot selection, which tends to run heavy on 3-point attempts even when the Hawkeyes have earned the right to shoot free throws with every foul.

On Sunday, the Hawkeyes went 2-for-10 from the 3-point arc in the second half, including a sequence of three consecutive misses when they held a 53-48 lead with seven minutes left. Joe Wieskamp, Bohannon and Jack Nunge were off-target. The Hawkeyes were unable to rebound any of the misses and soon trailed by two points.

This was despite the fact that Iowa had charged out of the halftime locker room, trailing by two points, and attacked the Hoosiers so furiously that they were called for seven fouls in the first seven minutes. From that point on, the Hawkeyes attempted nine free throws, and eight 3-pointers.

Iowa is 14 of 50 from the 3-point arc in the second half of its four recent losses.

On defense, whatever the Hawkeyes play (Sunday it was heavy on man-to-man, in Thursday’s 89-85 loss to Ohio State it was more zone) eventually loses its effectiveness. In the final 10 minutes of play in Iowa’s four recent losses (at Illinois was the other), opponents made 29 of 50 field goals (58%) and outscored the Hawkeyes 95-67. Big Ten opponents are shooting only 42.7% against Iowa overall.

Iowa’s slide started when starting shooting guard CJ Fredrick suffered a lower-leg injury that has kept him out of three of the five games entirely; in the other two, he played in the first half only. Fredrick, a sophomore, apparently will be a gameday decision for the foreseeable future. Still, the absence of one player shouldn’t manifest itself only at the ends of games.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, asked how his team could perform better in late-game situations, noted that some Hawkeyes are being asked to play different positions with Fredrick out. His son, Connor, has moved from a forward to a guard spot. Freshman Keegan Murray is replacing Fredrick in the starting lineup and taking on a bigger role.

“I just think it’s guys being out on the floor more in those situations and getting to the point where they can make plays,” Fran McCaffery said. “You can work on that, and we will.”

Sunday’s problems for Iowa were exacerbated by a bench that provided no scoring punch, even though five reserves combined to play 61 minutes. None of them made a field goal. That is why Indiana erased a 13-point first-half deficit and took a 33-31 lead, with three Iowa starters missing extended time after being called for two fouls each. McCaffery has long held a belief that a player who gets three fouls before halftime comes out in the second half too hesitant to be effective.

So Garza sat for 12 minutes and 30 seconds, Connor McCaffery for the final 10:16, with Murray returning to play for 2:23 with two fouls, but only 7:05 in the first half overall. Murray, a freshman, did eventually foul out. Garza, the frontrunner to be national player of the year, finished the game with just those two first-half fouls.

Fran McCaffery dismissed a question about why he didn’t reinsert Garza before the first-half lead evaporated late. That was valuable learning time for his young players, McCaffery said.

“How are they ever going to get any better? How are they ever going to improve?” he asked.

Wieskamp held things together for the Hawkeyes in the first half, with 15 of his 18 points. Garza had 16 of his 18 after intermission, blaming himself for picking up two fouls.

“I just can’t put my team in that position,” Garza said. “I trust coach McCaffery and his decisions.”

The only time Iowa has won a one-possession game this season happened Jan. 2 at Rutgers, which was then a top-15 team. The Scarlet Knights went into a tailspin, losing their next four games as well. But they’ve won four straight since.

And that sets up Iowa’s next matchup, a 6 p.m. Wednesday home rematch with Rutgers. Perhaps the Scarlet Knights up-down-and-up season can be a model for Iowa.

That was Garza’s view of things.

“When you’re losing four out of five and each one you had a lead, that just sucks. And it’s unfortunate,” he said after Sunday’s loss. “Right here is down the stretch. These next eight games, that’s the last stretch. So I think what we do now is going to show the character of this team and hopefully we’ll put some wins together and get on a roll towards the Big Ten tournament.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.