IOWA CITY — In the aftermath of a 71-69 overtime loss to Michigan State, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery walked in his news conference and threw down the verbal gauntlet at his nationally ranked squad.
He questioned their toughness.
“I just didn’t think we were tough enough,” McCaffery said. “We weren’t tough at all. That’s part of it, you know. I think they were being nice.”
McCaffery said he couldn’t explain how his team was soft, and toughness measurements are loosely defined. But the core areas of toughness are winning 50-50 balls, rebounding, making free throws and defending your opponent at the end of the shot clock. No. 15/12 Iowa failed to win enough of those possessions to beat the No. 7/6 Spartans.
Michigan State won 10 of 12 50-50 balls, according to McCaffery’s calculations. All of those Michigan State wins led to points. Iowa gave up an offensive rebound on a missed free throw in overtime that led to a Michigan State basket and extended Iowa’s deficit to three points.
The Hawkeyes (16-5, 5-3) shot 43 free throws, yet made just 30. They missed two of their last four at the end of regulation and failed to take advantage of Michigan State’s free-throw woes. The Spartans (19-2, 8-1) hit only 11 of 20 from the line.
Iowa also allowed a pair of 3-pointers at the end of the shot clock, but none greater than Russell Byrd’s 3-pointer from the corner with 30 seconds left that pushed Michigan State up 70-64 with 30 seconds left.
“Two for 10 on 50-50 balls and out-rebounded in the second half,” Iowa junior Aaron White said. “Both of those are a big in the category of toughness. We didn’t come out on the right side of those categories, and that’s how you lose.”
Despite the lack of toughness and a horrific run of offense — Iow didn’t make a basket in a 14-minute, 50-second stretch — the Hawkeyes still had chances to win at the end of regulation and in overtime.
With the score tied 61-61 inside of 30 seconds, Iowa held the ball for the final shot. Iowa guard Devyn Marble drove past Michigan State guard Gary Harris and missed with just seconds to go. Iowa senior Melsahn Basabe tipped the ball, but it appeared deflected and rattled out to Michigan State’s Travis Trice, sending the game to overtime.
In overtime, Iowa trailed 71-66 but Marble drove in the lane, scored and was fouled by Harris. Marble sank the ensuing free throw to cut the Hawkeyes’ deficit to 71-69. With 4.7 seconds left, Marble fouled Spartans point guard Keith Appling, who proceeded to miss both free throws. Iowa corralled the free throw with 4.4 seconds left but had to run from basket to basket to tie the game.
Iowa point guard Mike Gesell received the inbound pass, drove the floor and put up an off-balance layup attempt off the backboard at the buzzer, but failed to go in.
“The only thing Mike could have done is gone a little more to the basket, and he kind of floated away from the defender and tried to get it in,” McCaffery said. “I won’t fault him there in a situation where you’re down six and you’re laying the ball up in the buzzer to put it to the second overtime. I thought we had a good play there.”
“I knew we had one timeout left, but I felt like I could get to the bucket,” Gesell said. “I was watching the clock the whole time, and I felt like we needed to get a shot. In that situation you have to get at least a shot up. That’s a shot I know I’m capable of making. I just wasn’t able to make it.”
There’s a difference between Michigan State and Iowa, the Hawkeyes acknowledged after the game. The Spartans, despite being down two starters, have the mental toughness to persevere in the face of injuries and tough environments. Iowa, despite playing before a raucous crowd, failed to match the Spartans’ toughness. That point was emphasized by McCaffery and now the team will reflect on those words until Saturday against Illinois.
“They’re used to being there,” said Marble, who scored a game-high 21 points. “We’re still learning. We’re still learning in the sense of being expected to win. We’re expecting to win now. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. They’ve been doing this for years. Those guys are seasoned. They’re going to the tournament, playing in these kind of games year in and year out. For us it’s just another learning experience.