LINCOLN, Neb. — Losing three straight games by margins of 14 or more points was tough enough for the Iowa basketball team.
But what happened Sunday at Pinnacle Bank Arena in the Hawkeyes’ final game of the regular season left some reporters scrambling to figure out how to spell excruciating.
The Hawkeyes seemed to have solved their recent offensive issues, seemed to have punctuated their longest losing streak of the season, seemed on the verge of going into the Big Ten tournament on a positive note.
Then it all fell apart in a 93-91 overtime loss to Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers, who will be the 13th seed in the conference tournament, overcame a 16-point second-half deficit and got big plays from their biggest stars to score 16 points in the final minute of regulation and force overtime.
They got even bigger plays from some unexpected sources to finish the job. Freshman Amir Harris scored on a drive to give the Huskers the lead with 10.8 seconds remaining in overtime and little-used sophomore Thorir Thorbjarnarson blocked Jordan Bohannon’s 3-point attempt as time ran out.
It was the fourth blocked shot of Thorbjarnarson’s 29-game college career.
“We ran a good play and I got a good shot up,’’ said Bohannon, who hit a 3-pointer from about the same spot to beat Northwestern a few weeks ago. “He came flying at me. I thought I had some space but he got a hand on it. Just one of those nights.’’
Just one of those excruciating nights.
“We didn’t do what we needed to do to hold onto the game,’’ said Iowa center Luka Garza, who matched his career high with 25 points in the loss. “We had 11 turnovers in the second half. You can’t do that.’’
James Palmer led Nebraska (16-15, 6-14 Big Ten) with 27 points, 13 of those coming in the final minute of regulation and overtime. Glynn Watson and Isaiah Roby added 23 apiece.
The Cornhuskers, a 33.7-percent 3-point shooting team coming in, hit 13 of 26 shots from behind the arc with Watson making seven and Roby going 4 for 4.
The Hawkeyes (21-10, 10-10) put together a 9-0 scoring run late in the first half to grab the upper hand and hit the Cornhuskers with 10 quick points to open the second half, widening their margin to 47-31.
But Watson and Roby kept draining 3-pointers to keep the Cornhuskers in the game. Iowa seemed to have weathered the storm when Bohannon made two free throws with 56.6 seconds left in regulation to give the Hawkeyes a 74-65 cushion.
Roby, who had been Nebraska’s best offensive weapon to that point, fouled out on the play. The game seemed to be in hand.
“We fouled Roby out and we knew there were two guys who were going to take the shots down the stretch, Palmer and Watson,’’ Garza said. “We just needed to do a better job of forcing them to give the ball up.’’
The Hawkeyes actually made 7 of 8 free throws after that but every time they did, Palmer or Watson would knock down a quick 3. Iowa turned the ball over just once against the Nebraska press in that final minute, losing the ball out of bounds with 34.3 seconds remaining.
Connor McCaffery made the first of two free throws with 18.8 seconds to go, making it 81-79, but Palmer tied it with a drive to the hoop with 12 seconds left and Bohannon missed a desperation 3 as time ran out in regulation.
“I think you’ve got to give them credit,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Palmer and Watson. “Those kids made some tough shots. We came up on them, we were contesting. I think if you had it to do over again, maybe you run another guy at them … They made a bunch in a row. You’ve got to give them credit.’’
The lead bounced back and forth in overtime with Iowa’s Nicholas Baer scoring his only points of the game on a drive to the hoop to tie the score at 91-91 with 1:15 remaining. However, Baer missed a chance to complete a 3-point play and after each team missed a shot, Harris finally gave Nebraska a 93-91 edge.
The ball was knocked out of bounds with 2.5 seconds left and the Hawkeyes set up a play that gave Bohannon a seemingly open 3 from just to the right of the top of the key. The 6-foot-6 Thorbjarnarson anticipated the play and got a piece of the ball.
McCaffery said the play was exactly what he wanted.
“Pretty much,’’ he said. “The kid just made a great play.’’
Bohannon finished with 20 points with Joe Wieskamp adding 14, including a 3 that briefly gave the Hawkeyes the lead in overtime.
“I felt we dominated most of the night tonight,’’ Bohannon said. “We had the lead for 38 minutes or so. They just took it from us … They just started making some crazy shots, contested shots, 25 or 30-footers. We were making our free throws down the stretch but they were making 3s to our 2s.’’
The Hawkeyes, seeded sixth in the Big Ten tournament, are off until Thursday night, when they will play the winner of a Wednesday game between No. 11 seed Illinois and No. 14 Northwestern.
McCaffery said he thinks his team will bounce back.
“We’ve had tough losses before,’’ he said. “We’ve had a tremendous season and it doesn’t change what happens next week. You’ve got to play well against a really good team, whoever it is.’’
“Postseason is a new season,’’ Garza added. “We’re 0-0. That’s our mentality going into it. Whether we’ve got a four-game losing streak or a 20-game losing streak, it’s the same mentality. We’re 0-0 now.’’