Iowa men's basketball loses regular-season finale to Nebraska, finishes fifth in Big Ten

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − The stage was set and the stakes were high as Iowa men's basketball hosted rival Nebraska on Sunday afternoon in the regular-season finale with Big Ten Tournament implications.

A win would all but secure the No. 2 seed in the upcoming conference tournament, while a loss would put the Hawkeyes' destiny in flux.

The Hawkeyes were 11-point favorites entering the game but found themselves in a dogfight throughout Sunday's contest. The home team had several chances to seal the game but couldn't get over the hump in a 81-77 loss at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

With the loss, Iowa finished the regular season with a 19-12 overall record and 11-9 in Big Ten play. Iowa had to wait until Sunday night to find out its seeding. By the end of the day, the Hawkeyes just missed out on a top-4 seed and the double-bye that comes with it.

Iowa's seeding was ultimately determined by the outcome of Sunday's Rutgers-Northwestern game. Northwestern defeated Rutgers 65-53 to secure the No. 2 seed. So Iowa gets the No. 5 seed and will play at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Big Ten Tournament against the winner of Ohio State/Wisconsin. The game will be played at the United Center in Chicago and will be televised on Big Ten Network.

Patrick McCaffery led Iowa on Sunday with 23 points (including six 3-pointers), Kris Murray added 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, and Filip Rebraca recorded 10 points and seven rebounds.

"(We) would've liked to have that one today obviously," Patrick McCaffery said. "But you know, that's the way it is. It's something we're going to try to learn from, watch the film and bounce back. That's about all you can do at this point because it's win or go home no matter where we go."

Patrick McCaffery's bounce-back game was a silver lining

Pregame excitement in honor of Iowa's two seniors, Connor McCaffery and Rebraca, gave way to a slow start that had Hawkeye fans anxious. By the 13:25 mark, the Cornhuskers held a 18-9 lead behind some hot shooting while Iowa's starters struggled offensively to a 4-of-12 start. But then the Hawkeyes found a spark off the bench in Patrick McCaffery.

"He had a terrific practice (on Friday and Saturday)," coach Fran McCaffery said. "You could kind of see it coming but to see him play with that energy level and hitting six 3-pointers, that was good to see."

The junior had struggled since his return back to the court from anxiety issues but exploded on Sunday afternoon. His first 3-pointer at the 12:52 mark brought Iowa to within six points, and he hit another less than two minutes later that tied the score at 18. Co-led by bench companion Payton Sandfort, Iowa went on a 17-4 run to take a 26-22 lead in the latter part of the first half.

Patrick McCaffery's last double-digit scoring game was on Dec. 21 against Eastern Illinois. On Sunday, he set a career-high in 3-pointers in the first half alone en route to a 16-point first half. He also played 25 minutes, the most since Jan. 1 at Penn State, which was the last game before his absence.

Sandfort has been a reliable bench player all along but the potential for a confident Patrick McCaffery is good news for Iowa entering postseason play. The most encouraging part if you're a Hawkeye fan is that he said postgame that he didn't feel winded during Sunday's game, signaling his conditioning is no longer an issue.

"It took me a while to get my legs back and my groove back," McCaffery said. "But you just stay with it and trust the work. Obviously it's incredibly frustrating that it didn't end up in a win but I won't say it's for nothing because it gives me a good confidence boost moving forward."

An ice-cold second half doomed Iowa's chances on Sunday

Iowa's offense got into a nice rhythm down the stretch in the first half, shooting 43% from the field and 3-point line; that along with nine offensive rebounds leading to 17 second-chance points produced a 43-39 halftime lead.

However, the second half bore little fruit offensively and Nebraska's offense continued its good day.

"It just felt like shots weren't falling for us," Murray said. "Felt like we got good looks and open shots, just couldn't convert. It happens like that sometimes but we need to get more stops on defense to set up our offense."

In the second half, Iowa shot just 30% from the field, 18% from 3-point range (3-of-16) and 60% from the free-throw line (60%). Despite all that, the Hawkeyes held a 62-55 lead with 12:07 to play. Nebraska roared back with a 13-6 run to take a 68-67 lead with 8:16 to play. Over the next three minutes, the lead would change hands three more times. Iowa's offense halted for good from there.

The Hawkeyes didn't score a field goal in the game's final six minutes and didn't score any points in the final 1:55 of game play. On the other side, Nebraska finished the second half with 60/66/66 shooting splits.

Iowa forward Patrick McCaffery shoots a 3-point basket as Nebraska forward Wilhelm Breidenbach defends during Sunday's game in Iowa City.

Nebraska's CJ Wilcher took over the game for the Cornhuskers late, scoring seven consecutive points that gave them an 80-75 lead with 2:33 to play. Iowa had a few opportunities in the game's final minute but both went awry: Down 80-77, Rebraca missed a pair of free throws at the 1:15 mark, and Sandfort missed a transition 3-pointer at the 45-second mark.

With 16 seconds remaining, Connor McCaffery drove to the basket for a layup and a potential and-1 opportunity, but it was ruled a charge that sealed Iowa's fate.

"At least we made 12 three-pointers, but shot a ton (37 attempts)," Fran McCaffery said. "Probably more than we should've but I don't think there were many where I said, 'Boy, that was a bad shot.'"

Iowa men's basketball moves on to Big Ten Tournament

The consequences of Sunday's loss is that the Hawkeyes no longer control their fate. Players noted that last season could be a valuable lesson. Then, Iowa lost at Illinois in the final regular-season game and went on to the tournament title game as 5 seed. Fran McCaffery's message postgame was that regardless of whether the next game is on Thursday (5 seed) or Friday (4 seed), his team must be prepared for a strong opponent.

"There's a reason why there're so many (Big Ten) teams bunched up (in the standings)," McCaffery said. "Win or lose in the last (regular-season) game, you can't let it linger. We have to go down there with a business-like approach. Bye or double-bye, you're going to play a really good opponent."

Iowa learned its fate Sunday night after Northwestern beat Rutgers, pushing Iowa to the No. 5 seed.