IOWA CITY — The stage was set and the stakes were high as the Iowa men’s basketball team hosted rival Nebraska on Sunday afternoon in the finale of the regular season with the Big Ten Championship fallout.
A win would secure the #2 seed in the upcoming conference tournament, while a loss would put the Hawkeyes’ fate in flux.
The Hawkeyes were the 11-point favorite going into the game, but found themselves in an uphill battle throughout Sunday’s competition. The home team had several chances to finish the game but couldn’t get over the hump in the 81-77 loss at Carver-Hawk Arena.
With the loss, Iowa finished the regular season with an overall record of 19-12 and 11-9 in Big Ten play. Iowa had to wait for the rest of Sunday’s Big Ten results to learn the final seeding. Possible scenarios come down to just two outcomes: first seed #4 goodbye at first sight, or seed #5.
Iowa’s seed will be determined by the outcome of the Rutgers-Northwestern game on Sunday. If Rutgers wins, Iowa gets the fourth seed. A loss to Rutgers would put Iowa State in fifth place.
Patrick McCaffery led the team with 23 points (including six 3-pointers), Chris Murray added 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, and Philip Rybraca had 10 points and seven rebounds.
“(We) would have liked to have the day obviously,” said Patrick McCaffrey. “But you know, that’s what it is. It’s something that we’ll try to learn from, watch the movie and look back on. That’s all you can do at this point because it’s win-or-go home no matter where we go.”
Patrick McCaffrey’s rebounding game was a silver lining
The pregame excitement in honor of two Iowa seniors, Connor McCaffrey and Riberaca, gave way to a slow start that had Hawk fans worried. By 13:25, the Cornhuskers held an 18-9 lead behind some hot shots while Iowa’s starters struggled offensively going 4-of-12. But then the Hockeys found a spark off the bench in Patrick McCaffrey.
“He had great training (on Friday and Saturday),” coach Fran McCaffery said. “You could see it coming, but to see him play with that level of energy and hit six three-pointers, it was good to see.”
The young man had been suffering since his return to court from anxiety problems, but he exploded on Sunday afternoon. His first 3-pointer at the 12:52 mark brought Iowa within six points, and he struck again less than two minutes later and tied the score at 18. He ran for a 26-22 lead in the latter part of the first half.
Patrick McCaffrey’s last game scored in double digits was on December 21 against Eastern Illinois. On Sunday, he hit a career-high three-pointers in the first half alone on his way to a 16-point first half. He also played 25 minutes, the most since Penn State’s January 1, the last game before his absence.
Sandfort has been a reliable starter off the bench all along, but the prospect of a confident Patrick McCaffrey is good news for Iowa entering postseason play. The most encouraging part if you’re a fan of Hawkeye is that he said he didn’t feel tight during Sunday’s game, which indicates his conditioning is no longer an issue.
“It took me a while to get my legs back,” McCaffrey said. “But you just stick with it and trust the business. It’s obviously very disappointing that it didn’t end up winning but I wouldn’t say it’s for nothing because it gives me so much confidence going forward.”
A frigid second run doomed Iowa’s chances on Sunday
Iowa’s offense got into a nice rhythm throughout the first half, shooting 43% from the field and 3-point line; That, plus nine offensive rebounds that led to 17 second chance points, resulted in a 43-39 halftime lead.
However, the second half bore little offensive fruit and Nebraska’s offense continued its good day.
“I felt as if the shots hadn’t fallen on us,” Murray said. “I felt like we got good looks and shots open, just couldn’t convert. It happens sometimes but we need to get more stops in defense to set up our attack.”
In the second half, Iowa shot only 30% from the field, 18% from 3-point range (3-of-16) and 60% from the free throw line (60%). Despite it all, the Hawkeyes led 62-55 with 12:07 to play. Nebraska stormed 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. Eowa crime stopped for good from there.
The Hawkeyes did not score a field goal in the final six minutes of the game nor did they score in the last 1:55 of the game. On the other hand, Nebraska finished the second half with a shooting difference of 60/66/66.
Nebraska’s CJ Wilcher took over the game for the Cornhuskers late on, scoring seven straight points that gave them an 80-75 lead with 2:33 to play. Iowa State had a few chances in the last minute of the game, but both swerved: down 80-77, Rypraka missed two free throws at the 1:15 mark, and Sandvoort missed a three-pointer at the 45-second mark.
With 16 seconds left in the game, Connor McCaffrey drove to the basket for a layup and a potential 1-and-1, but was ruled guilty of sealing Iowa’s fate.
“At least we made 12 three-pointers, but we hit a ton (37 attempts),” said Fran McCaffery. “Maybe too much but I don’t think there was a lot where I said, ‘Boy, that was a bad shot. ‘”
Iowa men’s basketball moves on to the Big Ten tournament
The consequences of Sunday’s loss is that the Hawk family is no longer in control of their own destiny. Players note that last season can be a valuable lesson. Then, Iowa lost to Illinois in the final game of the regular season and went to the tournament title as the fifth seed. Fran McCaffrey’s post-match message was that regardless of whether the next game is Thursday (5-man) or Friday (4-rated), his team should be ready for a tough opponent.
“There’s a reason there are so many (Big Ten) teams clustered (in the standings),” McCaffrey said. “Win or lose the last game (the regular season), you can’t just let it linger. We have to go in there with a business-like approach. The opponent.”
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