Payton Sandfort's final shots rim out, Iowa drops heartbreaker to Michigan State

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

EAST LANSING, Mich. − After inexplicably throttling Michigan State by an average of 28 points in its two previous meetings, Fran McCaffery’s Iowa basketball team had to know that a third straight blowout of the Spartans would be a difficult ask.

This time, the Hawkeyes and Spartans went ahead and had themselves a Breslin Center barnburner.

Iowa had multiple chances to steal one on the Big Ten Conference road but scored only four points over the final six minutes in a 63-61 loss to the Spartans.

Payton Sandfort misfired on two 3-pointers in the final 5 seconds with a chance to win, sending the Hawkeyes to a heartbreaking defeat.

Iowa fell to 12-8 overall, 4-5 in Big Ten Conference play. Michigan State improved to 14-7, 6-4.

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“It was a hard-fought game," said Ahron Ulis, who led Iowa with 17 points. "First half, it was a tight game. Second half, came up short by two but I felt like we came out with intensity on both ends."

This one was tied, 59-59, at the final under-4 timeout. After both teams went empty for two possessions each, Ulis got fouled with 1:50 to go and missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Spartans coach Tom Izzo called timeout with 1:42 remaining.

Tyson Walker and Jaden Akins knocked in subsequent jumpers, sandwiched around a Ulis turnover when he drove to the lane and got tied up for a jump ball, to make it 63-59 with 49 seconds to go.

Connor McCaffery ended a 4:07 scoring drought with his shot off the glass with 35 seconds left to cut it to 63-61, and after A.J. Hoggard short-armed a front-end free throw, Iowa had the ball and a chance to win. Fran McCaffery called for time with 8 seconds left and the drawn-up play was a beauty. Connor McCaffery whipped a long pass over the top of Michigan State's defense to Kris Murray, who kicked it to Sandfort for a left-wing 3.

It went long, but McCaffery grabbed the board and found Sandfort again in the left corner. This one was short, and this one was over.

"Got two great looks at it," Connor McCaffery said. "I’m taking Payton to make that 98 times out of 100."

Fran McCaffery drew up that play during the timeout. It's one Iowa has worked on, and it almost worked for the win. Michigan State was out of timeouts and would've had to go the length of the floor quickly if Sandfort's shot had given Iowa a 64-63 lead.

“The kids executed the play," Fran McCaffery said. "You want to get a second shot if you don’t make it, which we did. If we had to do it over again, we’d take those two shots and try to win the game.”

Filip Rebraca added 16 points for Iowa. Murray, Iowa’s top scorer this season, was held to 11. Iowa went just 3-for-17 from 3-point range and 6-of-13 from the foul line.

“Definitely some plays along the way, some turnovers we wish we could have back," Connor McCaffery said. "We fought and played hard. But 3-for-17 from 3 and 6-for-13 from the line with 13 turnovers, it’s really hard to win on the road.”

Iowa found success against the Spartans early by getting the ball in deep to Filip Rebraca, who had eight first-half points.

Five days after playing its worst defensive half of the season in a 93-77 loss to Ohio State, Iowa got the defensive start to the game it wanted. The Hawkeyes’ starting five held Michigan State without a bucket on its first nine possessions of the game and forced some tough shots, as the Spartans went 0-for-9 over the first 4½ minutes. That allowed Iowa to take a 10-0 lead.

But the return of forward Malik Hall, who missed three games with a left-foot injury, seemed to spark Michigan State on both ends of the floor. He tied for a team-high with seven first-half points, with his thunderous dunk in transition putting the Spartans ahead for the first time, 24-23, with 4:52 left in the half.

Iowa played short-handed much of the first 20 minutes, with forward Patrick McCaffery (anxiety) missing his sixth straight game and Sandfort playing only 3:37 thanks to two quick fouls after coming off the bench. While the final 15 minutes of the first half went poorly for Iowa, it found itself down only one point (30-29) at intermission.

Although the Spartans entered Thursday having dominated Iowa during the Fran McCaffery era (14-6), the Hawkeyes had won the last three meetings − including the last two by a combined 56 points. The Hawkeyes throttled Michigan State, 88-58, in 2021 in what was the worst home loss of the Izzo era in 2021 (during the COVID-19 pandemic with no fans in the stands), then dominated an 86-60 decision last year in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on a night that saw Keegan Murray score 28 points and Luka Garza’s No. 55 jersey was retired.

Iowa now turns its attention to a crucial three-game homestand over a seven-day stretch: at 1 p.m. Sunday vs. Rutgers (14-6, 6-3), at 8 p.m. Tuesday vs. Northwestern (14-5, 5-3) in a makeup game and Feb. 4 vs. Illinois (14-6, 5-4) in a Saturday game that’s sold out. All three opponents are in the upper half of the Big Ten standings, making it that much more important that the Hawkeyes are playing their best basketball.

Michigan State and Iowa will meet again on Feb. 25 inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.