IOWA CITY — The shot that could have tied the score for Iowa late in its game against Wisconsin Saturday slipped off Zach McCabe’s hands and fell short of the basket.
That’s a metaphor for the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten season. Barring a combination of going 5-0 the rest of the way and getting an extraordinary amount of help from underdogs, Iowa’s regular-season championship hopes have slipped off their hands. At home.
Let’s get this “in fairness” stuff up front. In fairness, Wisconsin is an excellent team that played a terrific game in pulling out its 79-74 win in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In fairness, Iowa’s five Big Ten defeats have all come against NCAA-bound foes.
In fairness, Iowa still has as good a chance of any of winning the conference tournament if it can finish fourth or higher in the regular-season. In fairness, the Hawkeyes still could be highly dangerous in the NCAA tournament.
But the Big Ten regular-season championship banner, which hasn’t been hoisted here since 1979, is going elsewhere because the Hawkeyes didn’t beat an Adreian Payne-less Michigan State team, Ohio State, and now Wisconsin at home.
Asked if a theme or pattern could be found in those three losses, Hawkeyes Coach Fran McCaffery said “Yeah, we lost to three good teams.”
But Bruce Pearl, an assistant coach on some dynamic Iowa teams that never won the Big Ten, said this on ESPN after the game:
“It’s not too much to ask for this team to hold serve at home.”
Saturday’s game wasn’t lost because McCabe’s 3-pointer to tie with 17 seconds left slid off his fingers and into oblivion. He was as stand-up as a stand-up guy gets in repeatedly describing it for scribes after the game, clearly hurting about the loss and the missed shot.
“It’s sad,” he said. “It just slipped. I was going up and it slipped off my hand. It was probably as perfect as we could run.”
He later summed up the reason his team lost with clarity and accuracy:
“We played as crappy of basketball as you could in the first half.”
Iowa didn’t defend in the half, and the Badgers’ cadre of scorers shot 57 percent from the field in building a 40-31 lead.
Later, after fighting gallantly to erase the deficit and take a lead — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the Hawkeyes simply weren’t as good as their opponents in the final minute of a tight game.
How could this be? How could Iowa get dropped twice by a Wisconsin team that had lost five of six games from Jan. 14 to Feb. 1, that had lost at home to Northwestern?
A big part of that is the Badgers are really good.
“We were in a little bit of a shooting slump,” UW Coach Bo Ryan said. “Ted Williams had them, too. Not shooting slumps, but batting slumps. DiMaggio didn’t always hit in 50-some straight games.
“We were 3 of 17 (from 3-point range) on our home floor (against Ohio State) and 4 of 25, I think (5-of-24, actually, in the 65-56 home defeat to Northwestern). ... If you shoot like that in this league, 1 through 12, you’re going down.”
But twice in the last four minutes Saturday, Badger Josh Gasser teed up threes. They were all net. When Iowa needed a three for a tie, it was all air.
Bo Ryan. Nothing but NCAA tournament appearances and Big Ten finishes of fourth-place or higher, and this is his 13th season in Madison. Bo Ryan, coach of 22-5 Wisconsin.
“You know what you’re going to get with Bo,” said Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez after the game. “His kids are going to be coached well, they’re going to play good defense and not turn it over much.”
That they do. They made the shots and stops in the 40th minute. It’s a team that has beaten Florida, Saint Louis, Virginia, Michigan State. It whipped Michigan on the road last weekend.
That doesn’t make anyone feel better around here. Had Iowa won two of the three home games it lost, it would be tied for the Big Ten lead. Were it 3-2 against the league’s three top teams rather than 1-4, it would be tied for the Big Ten lead.
Well ... there’s always March.