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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For several, fleeting minutes, it looked like Iowa men's basketball had made a tremendous step forward defensively — and in a hostile environment, no less.
That's all those minutes ended up being, though — fleeting.
The Hawkeyes lost their third straight game, this time on the road at Notre Dame, 92-78, in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. They forced 14 Irish turnovers — 11 in the first half — and committed a season-low six. They got 23 points from Jordan Bohannon and 18 from Cordell Pemsl, each in their first career starts.
But what looked like improvement on defense over a few sustained stretches Tuesday night, in the end, regressed back to what plagued Iowa in each of its now four losses.
'Defense was a lot better tonight. There was more attention to detail in the game plan,' Coach Fran McCaffery said. 'We clearly needed to improve. Our defense has not been good in the previous six games. We still gave up 92 tonight, which is a credit to (Notre Dame), but I thought we played better.
'I thought we wore down a little. They just kept executing and we had that cold spell where we didn't score the ball and they did.'
When Iowa's defense was on Tuesday night, it forced Notre Dame into long possessions and low-percentage shots. When it was off, the Irish exploited the Hawkeyes in dribble penetration, midrange jump shots and kick-out 3-pointers.
The Hawkeyes (3-4) have been searching for consistency on defense, but rode the roller coaster again. Iowa led, 10-7, six minutes into the game and got to that point by forcing three Notre Dame (7-0) turnovers and just 3 of 8 shooting. Iowa was down 15 at one point of the first half, but used a 13-0 run over the final 3:03 to cut it to two at the break. They led again, at 52-50, with 14 minutes to go, and defense was back in order until around the 10-minute mark.
Jok said, as a team, Iowa played 'really great defense for 30 of 40 minutes' against the Irish, and it was those 10 minutes that sealed the game.
Notre Dame shot 47.3 percent from the field and got 24 points from Bonzie Colson, 22 from Steve Vasturia and 16 apiece from V.J. Beachem and Matt Ferrell. They also hit pay dirt at the free throw line, going 30 of 33.
By the time the Irish were able to make their final run in the late stages of the game, they had Iowa chasing them on defense, and used the high screen, pick-and-roll with effectiveness — where the Hawkeyes had stopped it for much of the night before that.
McCaffery gave credit to the Irish, but saw a net positive defensively for the Hawkeyes.
'They run really good action, and they do it a lot of different ways,' McCaffery said. 'You're guarding action, but then you're guarding personnel. You've got Beachem over here, then Vasturia is over there. You've got a lot of weapons, and you've got to worry about Colson in the post. Are we doubling? Are we not doubling? All of those factors are into it, but when it's all said and done, you've got to defend ball-screen action, or else Ferrell is going to have 12 assists and they're going to make 15 3s. I thought we did a really good job there.'
Ultimately, McCaffery said, the combination of wearing down and a lack of scoring late was the difference. The Hawkeyes went cold from the field — colder than their dry stretch when the Irish were up 15 in the first half — late in the second half, and couldn't overcome that.
Jok put the blame on himself there, whether that was justified or not. The senior had 15 points and six rebounds, but shot just 4 of 20 from the field. McCaffery said the shots he missed against Notre Dame were the same ones he made against Memphis, so he didn't have any worries about going forward.
But Jok held himself to a higher standard, and vowed it wouldn't happen again.
'I just wasn't making them. They felt great; it was just one of those nights. I feel responsibility for taking this loss. I didn't do my part,' Jok said. 'There's no way I should go 4 for 20 on any given night, against anybody. I've still got to find a way to make shots, and I didn't do it tonight.'
They know there's plenty of work left, but McCaffery and Co. believe the signs of improvement were there and they were encouraged by those moments. Specifically, assist-to-turnover ratio — 22 assists to six turnovers — was vastly improved, and the 22 assists coming in 27 field goals showed a more efficient offense.
Sustaining an active defensive presence is physical as much as it is mental, and Pemsl acknowledged the step up for all the inexperienced players still has them on a learning curve in that regard.
Though it wasn't sustained for long enough, better is good, and that's what Iowa took away from Tuesday — even in a loss.
'It was better than what it has been. We're still giving up a lot of easy buckets and a lot of putbacks, but it was a big step forward tonight,' Pemsl said. 'To be able to go in and guard teams like Notre Dame who play for almost the whole (shot clock) — to go down and guard for 30 seconds and then come back and try to score, it's exhausting. But that's something you have to learn to deal with and work on. If you get your conditioning right, it's going to be a hard time for them to keep up with you.'
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