Iowa men's basketball falls in Big Ten Tournament opener, now waits for Selection Sunday

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

CHICAGO − The rubber match between Iowa and Ohio State men's basketball in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament was unlike the previous two games. Each team claimed a regular season win in convincing fashion, but Thursday afternoon's game provided much more drama, going down to the final 30 seconds.

In the end, Iowa couldn't string together enough on either side of the court to advance, losing 73-69 to the Buckeyes. With the loss, Iowa falls to 19-13 and will wait for its NCAA Tournament seeding on Sunday.

Filip Rebraca led the team with 20 points and seven rebounds, Kris Murray added 17 points, six rebounds and five assists and Tony Perkins recorded 16 points. It was one of Iowa's most evenly contested games to date, with a season-high 18 lead changes. Ohio State claimed the lead with 3:23 to play and never looked back.

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"I thought we fought hard," said coach Fran McCaffery. "We got some stops defensively, but probably not enough consecutively. When that happens you can blame everybody, but I have too much respect for (Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann) and his players, you have to give them credit. They didn't panic, I don't think that we panicked and it came right down to the end."

The looming question ahead of Thursday's game was how the Hawkeyes would respond after a loss to Nebraska in the regular season finale, a loss that kept Iowa out of a top-4 seed and double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. On one end, the loss allows for near-maximum rest before the NCAA Tournament, but that's a bitter silver lining for the reigning conference tournament champions.

"I felt like we did well preparing and doing in practice what the coaches wanted," Rebraca said. "I feel like maybe we didn't do everything in the game that we wanted tonight. And then I guess it's a plus that we get more rest, but we never want that. We want to be playing for a championship on Sunday."

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A familiar theme this season hurt Iowa in the first half

Ohio State's Bruce Thornton (2) drives the ball against Iowa's Ahron Ulis (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Tournament.

The Iowa offense showed promise in the opening minutes Thursday afternoon. A trio of baskets by Rebraca, Perkins and Patrick McCaffery led to a 3-for-5 start from the field and an early 7-4 lead at the under-16-minute timeout. But then a familiar, and troubling theme arrived: Offensive struggles away from home.

Iowa's 29 points in the first half was one of the lowest marks of the season. On paper, its 50% shooting percentage (13-for-26 shooting) is a good number but the offense couldn't get into a consistent rhythm. The starting guards struggled to initiate the offense, finishing the first half with just 5 combined points and zero assists. Most of the points came in isolation via Rebraca (10 points) and Murray (7). An uncharacteristic seven first-half turnovers prevented the Hawkeyes from building momentum, and the team only had six assists.

"I think in a game like this 11 (total) turnovers is too many," Fran McCaffery said. "We had a lot of guys fumbling the ball, and needed that (last loose ball) at the end."

At home, the Hawkeyes are nearly a 37% 3-point shooting team but struggled to a 2-for-10 first half on Thursday. Overall, Iowa is shooting just 28% from beyond the arc away from home this season. It didn't help that sharpshooter Payton Sandfort took two early fouls and played only four first-half minutes. He only played 15 total minutes and had just 4 points on three shots.

"He was really frustrated," Fran McCaffery said. "That was unfortunate for him. I think you always think about (playing him with two fouls in the first half) but I felt like Patrick (McCaffery) was playing well and we had a pretty decent defensive effort going on, we had our defensive guys out there a little bit more. And I wanted him to be able to play loose and try to get going in the second half. It just didn't happen for him."

Tony Perkins provided a much-needed second half spark

Ohio State's Justice Sueing (14) drives against Iowa's Kris Murray (24) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Tournament.

In spite of the offensive troubles, Iowa's defensive effort kept the game close. Behind Murray's stat-stuffing 7 points, five rebounds and four assists and Rebraca's 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, the Hawkeyes only trailed 29-28 at the half.

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The beginning of the second half was clunky offensively with two turnovers in the first three possessions, but Iowa's offense settled in and started clicking during a crucial stretch. And the spark plug was Perkins, who led the team with 11 second half points.

"I didn't want to lose the game, so I tried to do the best I can bring the most energy," Perkins said. "I told my team that we have 20 minutes left and we're down by 1 at halftime. Let's get to it."

At the 13:25 mark in the second half, Ohio State's Sean McNeil knocked down a jumper to give the Buckeyes a 40-39 lead. What ensued was a three-minute stretch of basket trading where the lead changed seven times. Perkins was the aggressor for Iowa during this stretch, scoring 7 points as Iowa clung to a 49-48 lead with 10:46 to play.

Perkins led a strong defensive effort, including two blocks and two steals, that kept Iowa close during a three-minute streak from 8:21 to 4:43 when the Hawkeyes didn't record a basket. A Murray layup broke the scoring drought to the tie game at 61, but the Buckeyes responded with a 3-pointer on the next possession to regain the lead.

"We know they're a team that's not going to give, up so credit to them," Rebraca said. "When we made runs they were able to make runs of their own and get stops."

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State'sat the Big Ten Tournament.

The Hawkeyes went back to work behind Perkins' aggressive play. A driving layup cut the deficit to 64-63 with three minutes to play. Off a miss by Ohio State, Perkins raced down the floor to draw a foul. He earned two free throws, but missed both. The Buckeyes responded with a 3-pointer to extend their lead to 67-63 with 1:54 on the clock.

Two clutch plays by Rebraca (two made free throws) and Murray (a driving layup) brought Iowa to within a 69-67 deficit with less than a minute to play. The Hawkeyes needed one stop, but Ohio State's Roddy Gayle Jr. drew a foul on Connor McCaffery to give the Buckeyes free throws. He made both to extend the lead back to 4 points with 33 seconds remaining.

Iowa players explain crazy, final sequence against Ohio State

Ohio State's Brice Sensabaugh (10) takes a shot over Iowa's Kris Murray (24) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Tournament.

Down 71-69 with 20 seconds remaining, Iowa attempted to steal an Ohio State inbound pass. Perkins deflected a pass that led to a 10-second mad scramble for the ball. In the end, the officials ruled that the ball was out on Murray and gave Ohio State the ball. That was the final swing play that gave the Buckeyes the momentum. They hit two free throws to seal the game with under 10 seconds to play.

"Just two teams going for the ball," Murray said "Tough game...I'm not sure what the (official call) was but it just didn't go our way I guess. They got the ball back, I can't tell what exactly happened. There was a lot of chaos going on."

The hope among the team was to secure the ball long enough for a timeout or a jump ball, as the possession arrow pointed to Iowa.

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The Hawkeyes had several chances in the closing seconds, but missed four shots in the final 30 seconds and were unable to overcome the 4-point hump. A bitter end to the regular season is followed by a sour loss in the first conference tournament game.

Now the Hawkeyes must await their NCAA Tournament destination on Selection Sunday.

"They already feel bad enough," Fran McCaffery said. "I'm not going to go in (the locker room) and go around the room and talk about what you didn't do, what you didn't do. I did say I thought we should have jumped on the (loose) ball at the end and call timeout...they fought and I thought was really positive. I sort of reflect more on the body of work than what happens in the last 40 minutes.

"There's a couple guys that have little nagging, here and there injuries, so you get your heavy minutes guys some rest. Then we'll go back to work, work on our stuff and find out who we're playing."