The late-season slide. Iowa knows this feeling all too well.
Two seasons ago, the Hawkeyes dropped five of their last six regular-season contests, plummeting from 8-4 in the Big Ten to a 9-9 finish before getting bounced by Northwestern in their first game of the conference tournament and by Tennessee in their lone NCAA tournament game. All in all, Iowa lost its last four games and seven of their last eight.
Last season, those demons were somewhat exorcised, as the Hawkeyes actually won their final six regular-season contests. But then came another first-game exit in the conference tourney (this time a loss to Penn State). Iowa lost to Gonzaga in the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament.
On to this season, in which Iowa has held a top-10 ranking since Jan. 18 and was gunning for its first Big Ten title in decades. But those old late-season habits are proving to die hard.
The Hawkeyes fell in an upset, 68-64, to the Ohio State Buckeyes on Sunday afternoon in Columbus, their third consecutive loss and fourth loss in the last five games. Out the window went hopes for an outright regular-season conference championship. A share can still be earned with two regular-season games remaining.
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Sunday, it was a mighty poor first half that had Iowa looking up at Ohio State for much of the afternoon. The Hawkeyes shot just 39.3 percent from the field and scored just 30 points in the first 20 minutes. Mike Gesell had a third of those points, with Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok combining to go just 4-for-13 from the field. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes had an excellent first half, shooting 54.2 percent and holding a five-point lead on the No. 8 team in the country at the break.
An improved performance from Iowa meant Ohio State's lead didn't last too long into the second half. The game was tied in a blink after the Hawkeyes scored the period's first five points, and they had their first lead since the first half at 41-40 not even six minutes in, Uthoff rebounding by rattling off nine consecutive Iowa points. In fact, the Hawkeyes were ahead or tied for nearly 12 straight minutes in the second half. But once they matched a game-high six-point lead on a Gesell layup with about four minutes remaining, the Buckeyes roared back. A Kam Williams bucket was followed by a Marc Loving triple to make it a one-point game, and then Williams hit back-to-back clutch baskets: first a go-ahead long-range 2-point shot that put Ohio State in front, then a 3-pointer to make it 66-62 with a minute to play. That shot capped a 10-0 run in the most important moments of the game, and though Iowa got it back to a two-point game not long after, a last-second layup attempt by Gesell was blocked from behind by Keita Bates-Diop, allowing the Buckeyes to hold on for the huge win.
And a huge win it was for Ohio State, which might be able to make an eleventh-hour run at an NCAA tournament bid. Sunday's win was the Buckeyes' best of the season, almost without question, greatly improving a resume that is short on signature victories. There are opportunities to further bolster that resume, too, with a regular-season finale against Michigan State and whatever awaits in the Big Ten Tournament.
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Iowa finished shooting 40.7 percent from the field and went just 3-for-12 from behind the 3-point line. The Hawkeyes won the rebounding battle but only by two, 35-33, and missed five of the 22 free throws they attempted. Gesell and Uthoff both finished with 16 points, and Jok had 12.
The Buckeyes ended with a 44.6-percent shooting mark, shooting just 37.5 percent in the second half. Ohio State went 13-for-16 from the free-throw line and held a 34-26 advantage in points in the paint. Loving led the way with 25 points, also hitting four 3s. Bates-Diop had 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, and Williams finished with 11 points.
The Hawkeyes dropped to 20-8 overall and 11-5 in the Big Ten with the loss after starting 10-1 in conference play. There are two regular-season contests left: Tuesday night against Indiana and next weekend against Michigan.
Ohio State, meanwhile, improved to 19-11 overall and 11-6 in the league with the win. The Buckeyes have won five of their last six and wrap the regular season next weekend against Michigan State.