BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Midway through the second half of its NCAA postseason opener Thursday, Iowa found itself in familiar territory.
The Hawkeye basketball team was in need of a comeback.
"It seems like we’ve been in that spot all season," guard Payton Sandfort said.
But this time, Auburn denied Iowa a chance to finish the job, ending the Hawkeyes season with an 83-75 setback in opening-round play at Legacy Arena.
The Hawkeyes did cut a 17-point deficit with 11 minutes remaining to four points, but were unable to pull any closer than the 64-60 score Kris Murray pulled Iowa within on an emphatic dunk with 5:03 remaining.
"We’ve been there before. We’ve done it before, but not this time," Murray said.
There was no repeat of the 11-point rally in the final minute of regulation against Michigan State, the 21-point deficit Iowa overcame to beat Indiana or the 10-point second-half rally it took to beat Michigan.
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Instead, just the silence of a disappointment-filled locker room after coming up short in the first round of the NCAA tourney for a second straight year.
"We dug ourselves too deep of a hole," Iowa forward Filip Rebraca said.
A barrage of 3-point baskets by Auburn during a five-minute stretch during the first part of the second half left the Hawkeyes in that predicament.
The Tigers, who hit just 1 of 9 attempts before halftime connected on 7-of-13 tries from behind the arc in the second half.
Six came between the 16-minute mark in the second half and before Allen Flanigan hit from inside the arc to give Auburn a 58-41 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the game.
Tre Donaldson, who entered the game averaging 2.1 points, hit three 3-pointers and scored 11 points during that stretch.
Baskets by Tony Perkins and Rebraca began a 19-8 surge by Iowa, but it was the touch of Sandfort and Murray which pulled the Hawkeyes back into the game.
Sandfort scored five of his team-leading 21 points and Murray collected eight of his 15 as Iowa attempted to counter the Tigers’ surge.
"It feels like since that game before Christmas (a loss to Eastern Illinois) that we’ve had our backs against the wall almost every game," Sandfort said. "We never lost our fight, we battled as much as we could and never game up but sometimes, it just didn’t work out."
Auburn made certain of that.
Following Murray’s dunk, the Tigers held Iowa to one basket from the field on a shot by Sandfort over the next three minutes to regain a 74-64 lead on a basket by Wendell Green Jr. with 2:10 remaining.
"They’re a high-powered offense and we knew they had another run in them. We knew they weren’t going away," said Johni Broome, who led Auburn with 19 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks.
"Once they cut it to four we just held up and said we’ve got to get stops and win this game. We relied on each other, box outs, rebounds, contested shots. That’s what we did to finish the game off."
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery felt the Hawkeyes first-half shooting created Iowa’s issues.
"But, we kept coming in the second half, out-rebounded them, didn’t turn it over that much. The press was marginally effective, but give them credit for that," McCaffery said.
Broome led a group of six Tigers who finished in double figures while Rebraca joined Sandfort and Murray in double figures for Iowa, finishing with 14 points.
Neither team found its touch from 3-point range, combining for a 1-of-18 start from behind the arc in the opening half.
The Hawkeyes (19-14) went scoreless in nine attempts, the Tigers hit the eighth of their nine first-half attempts when Green Jr. connected from the left wing with 7:52 remaining in the half to give Auburn a 21-12 advantage.
The lead was the largest of a sluggish first half in which Murray was held without a point over the final 17:42 and ended with the Tigers in front, 31-26.
Both teams shot 38% from the field over the first 20 minutes, but Iowa played from behind for all but two of the first 20 minutes.
Two of Rebraca’s 10 first-half points pushed the Hawkeyes in front 5-4 and a Murray free throw extended the lead to 6-4 with 17:43 to go, but Auburn (21-12) answered with baskets by Broome and Flanigan to regain a lead it would not relinquish.
Iowa did trim the Tigers’ nine-point lead late in the half despite Connor McCaffery and Perkins sitting with two fouls, pulling within three on two occasions in the final three minutes of the half before baskets by Jaylin Williams and Broome led the Tigers to a two-possession lead at the break.
"To hold them to 73, 26 points in that first half, I felt good about the way we played on defense," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "That’s where it started for us."