CHICAGO — Fran McCaffery said it was the offense. Aaron White said it was the defense.
Suffice it to say that nothing much went right for the Iowa basketball team Thursday in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. Again.
The Hawkeyes lost their first game in the tournament for the seventh time in nine years as No. 13 seed Penn State caught fire in the second half and rode big plays by its only two seniors to a 67-58 victory over the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes at the United Center.
Iowa (21-11) rolled into the tournament on a wave of confidence and momentum with a six-game winning streak. It rolled out a bit shaken although still assured of landing a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“We just need to get back to work and get ready to make a run in the NCAAs …’’ said White, who continued his recent roll with 21 points and 13 rebounds in defeat. “I still think we’re one of the better teams in the country.’’
The Hawkeyes, who managed to hold off Penn State in overtime just 12 days earlier, had an 11-point lead in the second half before the Nittany Lions (18-15) seized control of what Penn State coach Patrick Chambers described as “a rock fight.’’
“Just two teams playing incredibly hard, intense, giving it up for their teammates and coaches,’’ said Chambers, whose team will face No. 4 seed Purdue today at 1:30 p.m. “We’re fortunate to come out as winners …
“In the second half we found our confidence,’’ he added. “We saw the ball go through the basket a little more. We got a few more stops than we did in the first half and luckily made some plays down the stretch.’’
No play was bigger than a three-point play by forward Ross Travis in the final minute.
White had narrowed Penn State’s lead to 58-56 and the Nittany Lions’ own senior All-Big Ten player, D.J. Newbill, missed a forced jumper at the other end. The Hawkeyes got the ball to Jarrod Uthoff for an open 17-footer but he missed, leaving the door open for Travis to deliver the knockout punch.
The 6-foot-7 senior, drove the baseline for a reverse layup, was fouled and made the free throw to up the lead to 61-56 with 30.4 seconds remaining.
“I just saw the shot clock winding down and the ball was in my hands so I had to take the baseline and make a play,’’ Travis said.
McCaffery said the Hawkeyes had two men on Newbill at that point to make sure he didn’t get the ball.
“So (Travis) ended up with some space and he drove it,’’ McCaffery said. “We should have fouled him. We should have fouled him early.’’
It was easy for the Nittany Lions to finish up from there. White missed on a drive and Newbill turned that into a breakaway dunk. After another Uthoff miss, Brandon Taylor drained two free throws.
Newbill finished with 18 points and Travis, who had scored in double figures only four times this season, collected a season-high 17. Sophomore guard Geno Thorpe added 11 points and six steals.
White got some help from Uthoff, who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, but Iowa’s other players combined to make just 5 of 30 shots from the field.
The Hawkeyes shot a season-low 26.3 percent from the field, 21.9 percent in the second half.
“Today’s effort in terms of execution and concentration was unacceptable,’’ McCaffery said.
The defense was better but not good enough, according to White.
“We gave up 48 points in the second half,’’ he said. “That’s where we lost the game more than the shooting percentage.’’
The Hawkeyes held the Nittany Lions to just 19 points in the first half and in one extraordinary 16-minute stretch held them to just one made field goal in 19 attempts.
They upped the lead to 32-21 early in the second half before going through a cold spell of their own in which they missed 10 straight shots.
That helped Penn State put together a 15-2 run to get the lead.
White said the Hawkeyes got “stagnant’’ on offense and were not cutting and moving as well as they have during the recent six-game winning streak.
“The flow of this game was really defensive-oriented,’’ Iowa guard Mike Gesell added. “Penn State is a team that’s really going to get in your space, try to mug you off ball screens, try to get you out of rhythm. That was just the flow of the game.’’
With the help of a McCaffery technical, the Nittany Lions eventually opened their margin to as much as nine (52-43) before Iowa came back.
“They made some tough shots and you’ve got to give credit to them for that,’’ McCaffery said. “D.J. made some tough shots and he wasn’t the only one.’’
McCaffery said he will let his players step back for a couple of days and try to refocus as they wait to find out their NCAA fate. Then they’ll go back to work.
“I’ll have their full attention now, that’s for sure,’’ he said.