IOWA CITY, Ia. — It was an opportunity to take a step up the Big Ten basketball ladder, on a national stage.
But No. 15 Iowa came up a step short. Or a missed free throw. Or a rebound. Or a 50-50 ball.
“Toughness statistics,” Iowa forward Aaron White said after a 71-69 overtime loss to seventh-ranked Michigan State on Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “You’ve got to be the tougher team. We weren’t that. That’s why you lose.”
The Hawkeyes missed eight of 20 free throws the second half and gave up six offensive rebounds. And then there were those 50-50 balls, often the difference between victory and defeat. Michigan State had a 10-2 edge there.
“I just didn’t think we were tough enough,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We weren’t tough at all.”
And in a season where national praise has been poured on the Hawkeyes as McCaffery’s rebuilding efforts have hit full stride, Tuesday was a humbling step back on a night when Carver-Hawkeye pulsated and 15,400 fans went home disappointed.
“The place was back to the Tom Davis days,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after his team improved to 19-2 overall and 8-1 in the Big Ten.
Iowa had won 20 consecutive home games since a loss to Michigan State in January 2013. A win Tuesday would have tied the school record in the 32-year-old venue. Instead, Iowa fell to 16-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten.
“Is it upsetting? Yes,” said Iowa’s Devyn Marble, who finished with 21 points. “Is it the end of the world? Absolutely not.”
Even on a night when Iowa lived at the free-throw line and didn’t have a field goal from the 9-minute, 56-second mark of regulation to Marble’s basket with 6 seconds remaining in overtime, there were still chances.
None better than the final possession of regulation. With the clock winding down, Marble took the ball to the basket against Keith Appling.
“I told everybody just to get out of the way,” Marble said. “I didn’t want a screen. I knew Gary Harris was going to shoot the gap, so I spun back. I got the shot I wanted. I thought it was good.”
Appling said he wasn’t worried.
“I’m the type of defender where I’m not going to let a guy score the winning basket on me,” Appling said. “I just kind of gritted my teeth, as Coach would say, and tried to stop him.”
Iowa’s Melsahn Basabe got position and tried to tip in Marble’s miss, but he also missed and the game went to overtime. The Spartans never trailed after Appling made a 3, with the shot clock about to expire, with 3:28 remaining.
“Toughness is both physical and mental,” McCaffery said. “You can’t let Appling take a 3 there with a second to go on the shot clock. He can’t get that shot off. He can’t.”
Another key moment came in the final minute of regulation and the Spartans ahead 61-60. Gesell drove to the basket and was fouled as he tried to bank in a drive. The ball hung on the rim and fell off. Then Gesell made just one of two free throws to tie the game with 47.7 to go.
“That’s one thing about being mentally tough,” Gesell said. “You’ve got to step up there and knock them down. It’s tough to win close games when you miss 13 free throws.”
Iowa still had one last chance, down 71-69 with the ball under the Michigan State basket and 4.4 left in overtime after Appling missed two free throws. Gesell tried to turn the corner and bank in a shot on the run, but he didn’t have a good angle.
Iowa held Harris, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, to just nine points. It was the first time he’s been held under double figures this season.
“They did one helluva job on Harris,” said Izzo, who played without starters Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
Appling led the Spartans with 16 points. Sophomore forward Matt Costello stepped up with 11 points and 12 rebounds, both career highs.
“Costello played the best game of his life,” Izzo said.
And a golden opportunity for Iowa slipped through its collective fingers.
“Obviously, it’s a big letdown,” White said. “Now, it’s back to work.”