Coach Fran McCaffery ejected as Iowa men's basketball team unravels at Northwestern

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

EVANSTON, Ill. − A miserable night for Iowa men's basketball at Northwestern reached a boiling point at the 7:30 mark in the second half Sunday. Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery apparently was upset about a missed 10-second violation against Northwestern, and his words with the referees resulted in a double technical foul and an ejection.

Less than three minutes later, junior Patrick McCaffery was charged with a technical foul of his own after disagreeing with a shooting foul called against him. Northwestern's free throws extended its lead to 22 points and the Wildcats rolled to an 80-60 Big Ten Conference victory.

More:Leistikow's 4 thoughts off Iowa's loss at Northwestern and Fran McCaffery's first ejection since 2019

Afterward, Fran McCaffery had little to say about his exchange with the officials.

"Can't talk about it," McCaffery said.

Patrick McCaffery offered some insight on his technical, stating that his only comment to the official was "That was so bad."

The contest carried major Big Ten implications. Iowa defeated Northwestern on Jan. 31, so a win on Sunday would give the Hawkeyes second place in the standings and a definitive tiebreaker over the teams trailing behind.

Northwestern was riding a serious wave of momentum after back-to-back home wins over Purdue and Indiana. Chris Collins' team sought a fifth straight win to not only secure second place but give itself a chance at the regular-season title.

"Rank Northwestern" chants rained from the home crowd as the Wildcats ran away with the victory. Hawkeye fans saw a familiar theme: a rough performance on the road.

"They got on us early and kept us down," forward Kris Murray said. "We weren't shooting well early and you have to be able to do that on the road and handle adversity. They set the tone early against us."

Northwestern retained second place in the Big Ten Conference and snapped a nine-game losing streak in the series. With the loss, Iowa fell to 17-10 overall and 9-7 in conference play and is deadlocked in a battle for top-four positioning.

Murray finished with 14 points, Tony Perkins added 11 points and Filip Rebraca recorded 10 points.

An ice-cold shooting night doomed Iowa's chances for a win

The game was decided behind the 3-point arc. Northwestern made 10-of-20, while Iowa was 3-of-24. Hard to win on the road when you're outscored by 21 points from long range. Iowa's three 3-pointers tied a season-low while 12.5% from long range was a season-low.

Murray was 0-for-6 from 3-point range, Connor McCaffery was 0-for-3 and Payton Sandfort was 1-for-5.

Iowa's first-half offensive numbers were ugly: 31% shooting from the field and 12% from 3-point range (2-of-17). The most deflating stretch was a seven-minute period between 10:51 and 3:51 in which the Hawkeyes missed 11 consecutive shots and committed three turnovers.

"Our transition, our half court offense, nothing was flowing," Fran McCaffery said. "You can't blame anybody, you just have to be better. You have to learn and grow from that and credit your opponent. They played really well, been playing really well and are one of the best teams (in the Big Ten)."

The first 10 Hawkeye possessions saw four missed field goals and two turnovers as Northwestern raced out to a 16-7 lead in the first six minutes behind a 3-of-4 start from the 3-point line.

Northwestern, one of the Big Ten's best defenses, was sound in its assignments throughout the half and didn't allow for many good looks early in the half. And the Wildcats' calling card, forcing turnovers, also took the Hawkeyes out of their offensive plan. Iowa committed eight turnovers in the first half; by comparison they average 10 per game. For the game, Iowa committed 15 turnovers.

"We were able to run them a lot more (on Jan. 31) than we did (on Sunday)," Murray said. "That was a big difference, we had too many turnovers tonight and that's where the game was won."

More:Leistikow: Putting Connor McCaffery's fascinating six years with Iowa basketball into perspective

How did the second half come apart for the Hawkeyes?

The Hawkeyes' offense did improve in the second half to the tune of 56% shooting, but Iowa couldn't garner enough momentum to mount a comeback on the road and instead unraveled down the stretch.

Perkins was the catalyst to start the second half with three quick baskets to keep Iowa within single digits. The junior led all Iowa players with 11 second-half points. The improved offense gave the Hawkeyes a chance but their defense couldn't find the necessary stops to push Northwestern.

"There were just times where we needed to get (a few defensive) stops in a row," Murray said. "Especially on the road against a team that's playing as well as they are. Just being able to get those stops when we cut the lead would've been big but we couldn't. Left them open and they hit shots."

A Murray layup plus the foul brought Iowa to within seven points with 13:47 to play, but Northwestern's Brooks Barnhizer answered with a 3-pointer on the next possession to take the Wildcats' lead back to 10 points. On the next defensive possession, Iowa nearly forced a shot clock violation but a bad foul by Sandfort gave Barnhizer two free throws and the deficit increased to 12 points.

Another Perkins layup brought Iowa to within 10 with 11:01 to play, but another Northwestern answer, this time a 3-pointer by Nick Martinelli, extended the Northwestern lead back to 13 points. And Iowa never got within 10 points again.

Shortly after came the flurry of Iowa technical fouls that saw a 16-point deficit increase to 22 points.

Sunday's loss moved Iowa's road record to 3-6, compared with 13-2 at home. The Hawkeyes feed off the energy of their home crowd but have struggled to generate momentum of their own away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Sunday's game was another example, and a second-half meltdown fed a Northwestern crowd that was hungry for a win.

"It's definitely tough (to gain momentum on the road)," Murray said. "But we have a veteran group, we just weren't able to do it (on Sunday). We have another road game (on Wednesday at Wisconsin), we have to flush this one and get better."

What does Sunday's loss mean for Iowa men's basketball?

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a play during the first half of Sunday's game at Evanston, Ill. McCaffery received two technical fouls in the second half and was ejected.

Fran McCaffery's message to his team postgame was simple: Sunday wasn't a good day but it's time to flush it and focus on the next game, which also holds importance: Wednesday at Wisconsin.

"Learn from it, don't beat yourself up over it," McCaffery said. "Don't blame yourself, don't blame your teammates, I'm not blaming anyone. We know what we're facing on Wednesday, another difficult road atmosphere with a really good opponent. We have to play better than we did today."

Sunday's disappointing result means Iowa will settle for a four-way tie for fourth place in the conference with Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan. The silver lining is that Iowa has the tiebreaker over those teams with a head-to-head win.

The Hawkeyes have four games remaining, two at home (Michigan State, Nebraska) and two on the road (Wisconsin, Indiana). A 3-1 record would all but guarantee a top-four finish and a coveted double-bye in the Big Ten tournament. Anything less would make for a tight finish. But what's clear is that following Sunday's loss, Iowa's margin for error will be razor thin to close the regular season.

Big Ten leaders:

  • Purdue 13-4
  • Northwestern 11-5
  • Indiana 10-6
  • Maryland 9-7
  • Iowa 9-7
  • Rutgers 9-7
  • Michigan 9-7