DAYTON, Ohio -- Exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically, Iowa's players huddled together for one last time in their locker room, expressionless with red eyes and low voices.
The roller-coaster season ended in disappointment, a 78-65 overtime loss to Tennessee in an NCAA Tournament first-round game. The Hawkeyes (20-13) lost for the seventh time in their final eight games. It was a similar scenario played out this season where Iowa jumped to a double-digit lead, only to allow its opponent to creep back into the game and ultimately surpass them.
This one stung most of all, not only because of the finality, but because of the effort. After a wretched previous two games where Iowa lost to Illinois and Northwestern, this time they played inspired. They competed defensively. They ran good offense. It was a loss, but it wasn't from a lack of effort.
"I was very proud of the way the team fought and the energy we came out with an the way we competed," Iowa guard Devyn Marble said. "Sometimes shots aren't going to fall."
Iowa led 29-26 at halftime after giving up a 7-0 run to close out the game. Iowa traded buckets with the Volunteers for most of the second half but led until Tennessee's Antonio Barton drilled a 3-pointer with 3:07 left to give the Volunteers their first lead. Iowa bounced back with a three-point play from Marble. Tennessee took a 64-62 lead late until Marble knocked down a jumper to tie the game with 17 seconds left and ultimately send it into overtime.
But in the overtime Tennessee attacked early and scored five points on its first two possessions. Iowa managed just one point, and the Volunteers put up 14. The game's physical nature took its toll with Iowa doubling up in fouls 28 to 14. That also was reflected in free throws with Tennessee shooting 30 and Iowa attempting just 15.
Iowa shot just 44.4 percent in the second half but had no turnovers. Marble's jumper was as clutch but the misses piled up and were costly. Marble sank just 3 of 15 shots. Josh Oglesby had a pair of good looks but missed shots late.
"Our execution offensively in the first half not as good as in the second half," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "Now we didn't make some shots down the stretch but our execution was very good. We got good shots."
"It's upsetting and disappointing but I can only be so mad," Marble said. "Shots aren't going to fall every game. It's one of the few times this year that I've struggled. But I competed on the defensive end, I was still able to be an excellent floor general. I played very well, to be honest. I know it's not going to show up on the stat sheet. You don't hear me say that very often after I've struggled shooting."
Iowa struggled to keep up with Tennessee's power tandem of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Stokes, who is one of three players in major conferences to average a double-double, scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Maymon scored nine and pulled down seven. Their physicality was apparent as they attacked Iowa's posts.
Stokes often initiated contact and forced Iowa's Gabe Olaseni and Adam Woodbury to move and lunge, and they were whistled for fouls. Both times they were called in the final five minutes. The first call went against Olaseni with Iowa leading by five points. Stokes cut Tennessee's deficit to three. The second went against Woodbury and it put Tennessee in the lead 61-60.
"A couple of difficult calls in that one stretch changed the momentum big time," McCaffery said.
The end was bitter and tough to reconcile. Senior Melsahn Basabe, who had three fouls in five first-half minutes, broke down when talking about McCaffery bringing him to Iowa after the coach left Siena. McCaffery admitted he did the same before speaking with media. Senior Zach McCabe also was emotional. Marble's right ankle was wrapped heavily in ice after an injury while defending on Tennessee's final possession of regulation.
It hardly was the happy ending most expected. In fact, it was a disappointment. But the fight made it easier to absorb.
"I don't think there's any question that they were fighting hard for me," McCaffery said. "They wanted it, they kept fighting. It looked like we had, then we lost it, then we tied it, had a shot."
"It is disappointing because I wanted more for my team, for Coach Fran for everybody. I felt like everybody here deserved it, to finish off the season strong and everybody deserved to go to a level we hadn't seen before."