Iowa City – Iowa’s final non-conference game of the 2022-23 season against Eastern Illinois should have been a breeze. Or at least a solid win. or just win.
The Hawkeyes were expected to send their visitors by 32 points, according to KenPom.com. But with 8 1/2 minutes remaining, the 3-9 Panthers stormed to a nine-point lead at stunning CarverHawk Arena. Suddenly, the prospect of a pre-Christmas loss seemed real.
This was an opponent who lost to Illinois by 30 points, Ohio State by 22 points, Northern Illinois by 20 points, and Ball State by 17 points.
With two veterans on the sidelines in Chris Murray (left foot) and Conor McCaffrey (left hand), Iowa’s sure options to restore order have dwindled. And the brave visitors went on to shoot the main shots.
In the end, Eastern Illinois eliminated the Big Ten Conference host, 92-83. It’s hard to believe.
“It has to go on, so it never happens again,” said Philip Rypraca, a fifth-year Iowa player who finished the season with 24 points and eight rebounds. “We should always use it as motivation. We understand what happened tonight. So when we come back from the break we have to understand that this cannot happen again.”
What happened on Wednesday could turn out to be the worst loss of the Fran McCaffrey era. The Hawkeyes were favored by 31 points against one of the worst teams in the country. A 77-61 loss at home to Campbell in McCaffery’s second season, 2011-12, may be the only thing that compares. But Campbell was No. 233 in Kienbaum’s rankings. Eastern Illinois was 356th out of 363 teams in Division I.
What’s wild is that Iowa stormed to an 18-4 lead in this afternoon game that was pushed earlier in the day to beat an expected winter storm. And the Hawkeyes still led at halftime, 45-37.
Eastern Illinois coach Marty Simmons said, “We’ve come such a long way. I think going into halftime in the eighth was a real blessing for us. I think our guys felt like they had a chance if they played well in the second half.”
The second half quickly collapsed for Iowa. This is what can happen when defense is lacking. A Division NN cheerleader took to the field to get close to the Iowa crowd and take down their defense in the second half. This is the ugly way. Eastern Illinois took 20 of its last 26 shots (76.9%), turning a 47-42 deficit into a stunning win on the road. Eastern Illinois’ lead was 82-68 with 2:50 to go.
The Iowa team that four days earlier crushed Southeast Missouri State, 106-75, mistakenly thought they could prevail before a sparse holiday crowd.
“They had a good day. They did a lot of good things. And I think we took them lightly,” Rebraca said. I think. But they’ve got hoops. They’ve got top-notch players. They’ve got really good athletes.”
“We didn’t respect them. Every opponent that comes here, no matter the division…you respect them,” said Rypraca. “Every time you respect a player, it means you’re doing your best to play against him. And I don’t think we’ve done that.”
Good for Rebraca for being forthright; This was an embarrassing loss. The Panthers were 11-for-11 in dunks and 12-for-18 in kicks. One of the worst rebounding teams in the country beat Iowa, 42-38. A team that has been shooting 25.8% from 3-point range this season has gone 6-for-15 (40%).
Meanwhile, Iowa shot 7-for-33 (21.2%) from 3-point range. Patrick McCaffery (12 points, 13 rebounds) was 0-for-7 from deep. As was Aharon Ulis (four points) 0-for-7. After a hot 3-for-1 start, Payton Sandvoort (18 points) finished 3-for-10.
Fran McCaffrey said, “These games always have a different vibe to it, the one that was right before Christmas. You hope you guys are really locked in. It looked like we were at first. We hit a few shots early on and then got cold.”
The Hawkeyes (8-4) had no excuse for losing this game, but the absence of Murray (who was playing like an All-American before his left foot injury forced him to miss Iowa’s last four games) and Conor McCaffery can’t. is ignored. Connor’s reputation as a gum man definitely gained more leverage Wednesday, as Iowa desperately needed his quiet leadership on the floor.
Iowa shot 32 free throws but only made 20, and it was 38.9% from the floor. Eastern Illinois hit 60%. Fran McCaffrey thought his team went too much individually in the second half, when he only caught two passes.
“We haven’t had a lot of submarines,” Fran McCaffery said. “I thought we were a bit tired. We could have used Connor’s toughness, his experienced drive and of course another experienced body.”
This will hurt Iowa’s NCAA Tournament resumption in March. Iowa fell from #21 to #38 in the Kienbaum rankings. Perhaps Murray could return for Iowa’s Big Ten opener on Dec. 29 at Nebraska. Fran McCaffrey has hinted at this possibility. He thought Conor McCaffrey had a chance at a comeback at that time, too.
But that was a dark day for Iowa basketball. For one day only. But it’s dark.
“We had enough healthy people. I thought we would have played better today,” said Fran McCaffrey.
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