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For Hawkeyes, a hole too deep and another early exit from NCAA tourney
Iowa’s shooting didn’t thaw soon enough, and its comeback came up short in 83-75 NCAA first-round loss to Auburn
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The moment of the Iowa’s men’s basketball season — the one that made the team a national talking point for an entire weekend — was Feb. 25 when it beat Michigan State at home after making an 11-point deficit vanish in 60 seconds.
On Jan. 5, the Hawkeyes beat Indiana in Iowa City after trailing by 21 points in the first half.
The trouble is, you can ride that cardiac comeback stuff only so often, and you really hate to count on it in an NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes trailed Auburn 58-41 with 10:50 left Thursday at Legacy Arena, then outscored the Tigers 19-6 over the next 5:46 to claw within 64-60.
There was no blockbuster rally for victory this time. This was in Alabama, where a heavily pro-Auburn crowd fired up Bruce Pearl’s guys and sustained them through a shaky stretch.
“It was like playing in (Auburn’s) Neville Arena tonight, the amount of fans that we had,” said Tigers guard Wendell Green Jr.
The Tigers righted themselves, and claimed an 83-75 win and a second-round game Saturday against No. 1-seed Houston. Iowa finished the season in the first round of this tourney for the second-straight time, and with a 19-14 record.
How a No. 9 seed gets to play two NCAA games 110 miles from its campus is a head-scratcher, but not one the Hawkeyes chose to use as a source of regret. Iowa senior center Filip Rebraca said he liked it.
“We were hoping for something more neutral,” Iowa senior guard Connor McCaffery said, “but that’s not why we lost. I think it’s just part of the game.”
“We are used to playing really good teams in hostile environments,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “So this cannot be an excuse nor can we make it one.”
Streaky outside shooting was a big story for Iowa this season, and mattered a lot here. When the Hawkeyes were good from outside this season, they were a very, very good team. And when they were bad from the perimeter as they often were, they paid for it.
They were worse than 28 percent in 3-point shooting on 12 occasions this season and lost each time. The latest occasion was Thursday when they went 7-of-27 for 25.9 percent, and 41.2 percent overall.
Things were a lot better in the second half, which is why Iowa climbed most all the way out of that big hole.
“I think we just freed up,” said Hawkeye sophomore wing Payton Sandfort, who had 17 of his game-high 21 points after halftime. “I thought we were a little tentative coming out, we couldn’t get anything to drop early. And then it’s kind of contagious. But we stayed in it, kept fighting.”
Getting all the way out of 17-point holes is uncommon in this tournament, especially against capable teams like Auburn. So, Iowa’s season was again over on the Thursday of the NCAA’s first week.
‘Tis better to get to the NCAAs and lose than never get there at all, but brief tourney stays are gutting.
“Really sucks,” said Iowa third-team All-American Kris Murray, who surely played his last collegiate game Thursday. “Just raw emotions in the locker room. We’ve just got to think about the positives of the season, how we’ve handled adversity.
“We started out 0-3 in Big Ten play, lost to Eastern Illinois. A lot of people probably thought we couldn’t be in this position.”
“You walk off the floor after we lose to Eastern Illinois,” Fran McCaffery said, “you’re like ‘Are we going to be able to get this team to the NCAA tournament?’ They never stopped believing in each other.”
Farewell to NBA-bound Murray, farewell to pro basketball-bound Rebraca, farewell to Connor McCaffery. The ever-thinking Connor purposely committed his fifth foul with 17 seconds left and the game decided so he could walk off the court and tearfully embrace his father.
“We’re not here if he doesn’t come back,” Fran McCaffery said. “I think that’s a fact. What he did for this team in terms of leadership and versatility showed right through to the end of this game.
“He’s 5-for-5 in going to tournaments. He’s a consummate winner.”
Friday, though, the Hawkeyes head back to Iowa. Auburn, meanwhile, stays home.
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