LINCOLN, Neb. — Eric May stood outside the Iowa locker room, huddled with his parents. His hands were clasped behind his head as he stared at a wall.
The lone senior on Iowa’s basketball team has dreamed of playing in an NCAA Tournament before turning in his jersey for good, and he’s down to his last chance. A three-game winning streak kept hope alive. A crushing 64-60 loss to Nebraska Saturday at the Bob Devaney Sports Center did just the opposite.
“A step back,” May said. “It hurts.”
An aggressive Iowa team broke out to a 19-point lead late in the first half and took a 16-point lead into the locker room at halftime. A tentative, timid team came out in their place the second half.
“I hope that they feel as badly as I do right now,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after Dylan Talley’s deep 3-pointer from the top of the key with 9 seconds to play broke a 60-60 tie.
Mike Gesell missed a tying 3 with :03 to go, then the Cornhuskers’ Ray Gallegos made a free throw to seal the comeback and put Iowa’s dreams of a first NCAA berth since 2006 back in mothballs.
“The second half, we weren’t ready to play,” Gesell said. “Coach emphasized that we come out and play tough the first four minutes. We did the exact opposite. We blew our lead right away.”
In addition to falling to 6-8 in the Big Ten and 17-10 overall, the loss followed a script Iowa has had a hard time shaking. The last five Big Ten road games have all come down to the final minute of regulation. The Hawkeyes have lost four of them.
“We have let a number of games get away,” McCaffery said. “It seemed like the second half we just couldn’t get a basket.”
Iowa’s lack of aggressiveness was missing on both ends of the floor. The Hawkeyes shot 43.8 percent from the floor in the first half and made 14 field goals. Iowa had just seven more the second half, in 25 tries. That’s a cool 28 percent.
Nebraska entered the game last in the Big Ten in scoring, at 55.8 points a game. It scored 39 in the second half. Eleventh in the league in field-goal shooting at 37.7 percent, the Cornhuskers shot 62.6 percent the second half.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles didn’t make a single substitution the second half.
“Did you see the first half?” he said after his team improved to 4-10 in the Big Ten and 13-14 overall.
Talley, coming off a career-high 28 points against Michigan State in Nebraska’s previous game, made just one of seven first-half shots Saturday. He finished with 18, including his clutch game winner.
“We wanted them to shoot a contested jumper in that situation, and that’s what they shot,” McCaffery said. “And the kid made it. Give it to him.”
Freshman Shavon Shields added 17 points, and gave Nebraska its first lead since the game’s first basket, at 58-57, with 2:25 to go.
Iowa was down, 60-57, when Aaron White made Iowa’s only second-half 3-pointer at the 1:23 mark. White finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, but the Hawkeyes would not score again.
Iowa rebounded a Talley miss and had a chance to regain the lead. But Marble, who would finish with 18 points, was called for charging with :44.6 remaining.
“We didn’t execute at all,” McCaffery said. “It’s a long story. We just didn’t execute.”
Talley did execute, and Iowa’s March Madness forecast looks more and more like the NIT. Another road opportunity. Another loss.
“Frustrating, obviously,” White said. “We’re putting ourselves in such a great position to win all these games. We just haven’t come out on the right side.”