LINCOLN, Neb. The narrative to Iowa's men's basketball season now has gone to press.
Only an epilogue erasing the entire campaign can rewrite the season or a game like Saturday's 64-60 tragic collapse at Nebraska. The latest installment of epic defeats featured the Hawkeyes (17-10, 6-8 Big Ten) blowing a 19-point, first-half lead on the road against the Big Ten's worst scoring offense. It featured a stunning reversal of execution, energy and effectiveness.
It was the loss that likely will keep Iowa from the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight season. But it was just like all the others.
Saturday, Nebraska point guard Dylan Talley nailed a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock with nine seconds left to give the Cornhuskers (13-14, 4-10) a 63-60 lead. Iowa's Mike Gesell tried to tie the game with a 3-pointer of his own, but the shot went long and bounced over the backboard. Nebraska inbounded, Ray Gallegos was fouled and knocked down one of two free throws to seal the win.
"It hurts," Iowa senior Eric May said. "I expected to win this game."
The outcome fit into a similar mosaic of Iowa's season. The Hawkeyes led by 12 in the first half and inside of two minutes against Michigan State before losing by three. Iowa blew a four-point lead and a last-second chance to win in overtime at Purdue. The Hawkeyes allowed up a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left to give up the lead and ultimately the win 62-59 at Minnesota. Iowa led Wisconsin by nine with six minutes to at Kohl Center before a late 3-pointer tied the game, and the Badgers won in double overtime.
"If you look down at the schedule, all of those close games have an impact on the NCAA tournament chances," Iowa sophomore Aaron White said. "You don't think about that now, but obviously when you look back, you look at the resume at the end of the season, we're going to look at it frustrated because what is it, five possessions in six games, maybe?"
"Out of all the shots, that one was the most difficult one," Iowa junior Devyn Marble said. "At least we made him make the shot. At Minnesota, it was kind of an open shot in with a good shooter in Hollins. Wisconsin, it wasn't as bad, but it wasn't as good of defense as today was. We try to give credit."
But Saturday's damages Iowa's NCAA hopes more than any of the others. Nebraska already had clinched a losing Big Ten season. In three consecutive possessions, May and Marble (two) sank 3-pointers to put Iowa up 41-22 with 48 seconds left in the half. Nebraska's Shavon Shields got to the rim on the next possession and was fouled by Iowa's Adam Woodbury. Shields made the basket and the free throw, but Iowa was up 16 at halftime.
That's when the game changed. Nebraska's focus, center Brandon Ubel said, was increasing the energy level. Iowa instead slipped into complacency. Nebraska shot 62.5 percent in the second half, while Iowa sank just 28 percent from the floor.
"The second half, we just weren't ready to play," said Iowa guard Mike Gesell, a South Sioux City, Neb., native. "Coach (Fran McCaffery) emphasized at halftime that we've really got to come out and play tough the first four minutes, and I think we did the exact opposite. We blew our lead right away. That's something that you can't do."
Nebraska trimmed at Iowa's lead before cutting its deficit to 53-50 with 7:17 left. Marble twice answered with a pair of jumpers to keep the Hawkeyes in the lead at 57-52 with 4:45 remaining. But the game's momentum had swung toward the Cornhuskers, based on Iowa's sluggish play and Nebraska's offensive rhythm and defensive persistence.
"We got tentative trying to hold on to it," McCaffery said. "You can't hold on to a lead in a seven-possession, eight-possession game for 20 minutes. You've got to go attack the same way you got the 16-point lead. We didn't do that."
Nebraska then scored eight points on four consecutive possessions to take a 60-57 lead. White drilled a 3-pointer to knot the game up with 1:29 left. The Hawkeyes forced Talley to miss a shot off the glass, and Josh Oglesby pulled down a rebound with 1:11 left. Marble dribbled into a double team in front of the basket and was called for a change. That gave Nebraska one final chance, and Talley took advantage.
With an RPI hovering at 79 Saturday, Iowa's chances for an NCAA tournament bid could rest with either an upset at No. 1 Indiana next Saturday or a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament. White isn't giving up hope.
"I'm not going to say it's slipping away," White said. "We still have got four games left, Big Ten Tournament. It's not over with."
Only the epilogue remains.