Iowa basketball suffers stunning home loss to woeful Eastern Illinois: 'We took them lightly'

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − Iowa’s final non-conference game of the 2022-23 season against Eastern Illinois was supposed to be a breeze. Or at least a solid win. Or just a win.

The Hawkeyes were projected to dispatch their visitors by 32 points, according to KenPom.com. But with 8½ minutes to go, the 3-9 Panthers had stormed to a nine-point lead at a stunned Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Suddenly, the prospect of a jarring pre-Christmas loss seemed real.

This was an opponent that had lost to Illinois by 30 points, Ohio State by 22, Northern Illinois by 20 and Ball State by 17.

With two key veterans on the sidelines in Kris Murray (left foot) and Connor McCaffery (left hand), the proven options for Iowa to restore order had dwindled. And the plucky visitors just kept making key shots.

In the end, Eastern Illinois took down its Big Ten Conference host, 92-83. Hard to believe.

“It should linger, so it never happens again," said Iowa fifth-year senior Filip Rebraca, who finished with 24 points and eight rebounds. He chided himself for pouting during a first-half timeout and said he needed to show better leadership. "We should always use it as motivation. We understand what happened tonight. So when we come back from break, we’ve got to understand this can never happen again.”

What transpired Wednesday may go down as the worst loss of the Fran McCaffery era. The Hawkeyes were favored by 31½ points against one of the worst teams in the country. A 77-61 home loss to Campbell in McCaffery’s second season, 2011-12, might be the only thing comparable. But Campbell was No. 233 in the KenPom ratings; Eastern Illinois was No. 356 out of 363 Division I teams.

Iowa gave up 11 dunks and 12 layups in its 92-83 loss to Eastern Illinois.

What's wild is Iowa stormed to an 18-4 lead in this afternoon game that was pushed to earlier in the day to beat the expected winter storm. And the Hawkeyes still led at halftime, 45-37.

“We chipped away," Eastern Illinois coach Marty Simmons said. "I think going into halftime down eight was a real blessing for us. I think our guys felt like they had an opportunity if they played well in the second half.”

The second half unraveled quickly for Iowa. That's what can happen when defense is lacking. One fan came down from Section NN to courtside to get within earshot of the Iowa huddle and chew out its defense in the second half. That's how ugly it got. Eastern Illinois made 20 of its final 26 shots (76.9%), turning a 47-42 deficit into a stunning road win. The Eastern Illinois lead was 82-68 with 2:50 to go.

An Iowa team that four days earlier had thrashed Southeast Missouri State, 106-75, mistakenly thought it could coast to a victory before a sparse holiday crowd.

“They had a good day. They did a lot of good things. And I think we took them lightly," Rebraca said. "We were a little too arrogant after our win against SEMO. We were feeling good. We were up 18-4. We thought everything was nice and easy, I guess. But they have hoopers. They have Division I players. They have really good athletes."

He continued.

"We didn’t respect them. Every opponent that comes in here, no matter what division … you respect them," Rebraca said. "Every time you respect a player that means giving your all to play against them. And I just don’t think we did that."

Good for Rebraca for being candid; this was an embarrassing loss. The Panthers were 11-for-11 on dunks and 12-for-18 on layups. One of the worst rebounding teams in the country outrebounded Iowa, 42-38. A team that was shooting 25.8% from 3-point range this season went 6-for-15 (40%).

Meantime, Iowa shot 7-for-33 (21.2%) from 3-point range. Patrick McCaffery (12 points, 13 rebounds) was 0-for-7 from deep; Ahron Ulis (four points) also was 0-for-7. After a hot start from 3, Payton Sandfort (18 points) finished 3-for-10.

“These games always have a different feel to them, the one right before Christmas," Fran McCaffery said. "You hope your guys are really locked in. It seemed like we were at the beginning. We hit some shots early then went cold."

The Hawkeyes (8-4) had no excuse to lose this game, but the absences of Murray (who was playing like an all-American before his left-foot injury that has forced him to miss Iowa's last four games) and Connor McCaffery cannot be ignored. Connor's reputation as a glue guy certainly gained even more clout Wednesday, as Iowa desperately needed his calm-it-down leadership on the floor.

Iowa shot 32 free throws but made only 20. It was 38.9% from the floor; Eastern Illinois shot 60%. Fran McCaffery thought his team went too much one-on-one in the second half, when it only had two assists.

"We didn’t have a lot of subs. You try to press and up-tempo the defense," Fran McCaffery said. "I thought we were a little tired. We could have used Connor’s toughness, his veteran leadership and of course another experienced body.”

This one will hurt Iowa's NCAA Tournament resume come March. Iowa plummeted from No. 27 to No. 60 in the NCAA NET ratings. Maybe Murray can come back in Iowa's Big Ten opener Dec. 29 at Nebraska. Fran McCaffery hinted at that prospect. He thought Connor McCaffery had a chance to return then, too.

But this was a dark day for Iowa basketball. Just one day. But a dark one.

“We had enough healthy people," Fran McCaffery said. "I would’ve thought we would’ve played better today.”