IOWA CITY — There were plenty of reasons but not as many answers last night as to why Iowa has fallen down the Big Ten staircase to the island of slightly above average.
The No. 13 Hawkeyes (17-6, 6-4 Big Ten) whiffed mightily form the outside, missed more than one-third of their free throws and struggled to contain Ohio State's second-half offense in a 76-69 loss at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa shot a season-low 3 of 20 from 3-point range (15 percent) and many of the shots were uncontested.
Iowa knocked down just 12 of 19 free throws and missed at least one free throw on its last four trips to the line. The No. 24 Buckeyes (18-5, 5-5 Big Ten) torched Iowa for 45 points after halftime, the fourth-most against the Hawkeyes in a half this season.
"I think if you want to look at where we lost the game, we lost the game with defense in the second half," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "I don't think there's any question."
Ohio State scored on 22 of 35 second-half possessions and only twice were held three consecutive trips without scoring. On the Buckeyes' first two possessions Lenzelle Smith Jr. knocked down shots, the first on a jumper and the second on a 3-pointer. Four trips later, hit another 3-pointer. Each time he gave the Buckeyes either the lead or tied the game up.
Smith Jr. finished with 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting. But he scored zero in the first half, and Ohio State Coach Thad Matta called him out at halftime.
"I told both he and Shannon (Scott) at halftime to urinate a drop," Matta said. "And they to give us something. To their credit both guys did a tremendous job of stepping up and making plays. I told Lenzelle, ‘Hey, we need you. We need you to make some shots. You can’t be 0 for 4 and 0 for 2.'
"Lenzelle’s start at the second half was the difference in the game in terms of getting momentum back on our side."
Iowa led 33-31 at the break and kept pace with Ohio State for most of the half. The Buckeyes led by four points with 4:09 left in the game and only two seconds left on the shot clock. Matta called timeout, drew up an inbound oop pass from point guard Aaron Craft to center Amir Williams at the rim. They connected, and Williams slammed it home to deflate Iowa and push the Buckeyes ahead 60-54.
"We only had two seconds, and I just said, ‘Hey, just get up there and see what can happen,'" Matta said. "For a 30-second timeout, they executed it to perfection for us."
Mike Gesell missed a shot on Iowa's next possession, and Sam Thompson made the Hawkeyes pay with a 3-pointer that took the lead to nine with 3:37 left. The Hawkeyes chopped their deficit to four points twice, but failed to get a defensive stop following those scores.
"I can’t really give you an exact couple of reasons why we weren’t getting those stops," Iowa forward Aaron White said. "I’m really at a loss for words. I don’t know what to tell you. We didn’t just play our best. It showed on the offensive end, it showed on the defensive end, it showed in transition, it showed in our inability to take care of the ball. It shows in the stats."
Iowa missed its first nine 3-point attempts. After both makes in the second half, Ohio State answered with a score.
McCaffery called out his team for playing soft last week against Michigan State. He declined to use an overarching reason for losing to Ohio State other than to give credit to the Buckeyes.
"I think we tend to focus sometimes on what we didn't do, what we should have done, what I didn't do, what they didn't do. But you have to be respectful of who this team is," McCaffery said. "We don't want to get carried away here."
"I wouldn’t say it’s toughness because none of the guys backed down from Ohio State," said Iowa junior center Gabe Olaseni, who scored 14 points. "I feel as though we made bad mistakes in certain situations we shouldn’t have. Two or three more 3s would have changed the game a lot."
The Hawkeyes remain in third place, one game ahead of Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings. But any hopes of a league regular-season title remain now are on life support. Iowa has lost its last two games at home after winning 20 in a row here. The Hawkeyes are behind play co-leaders Michigan and Michigan State by three games, almost an insurmountable deficit.