IOWA CITY – Moral victories are often a touchy subject. Some coaches refuse to acknowledge their existence. Others use them to praise their struggling team.
Fran McCaffery usually sides with the former argument. On this night, it may be wise to take pride in the latter.
Iowa dropped its fourth straight game Thursday night on the road at Hilton Coliseum against Cy-Hawk rival Iowa State by a score of 84-78. The Hawkeyes managed to play one of their best games of the season, as the young team had to travel behind enemy lines, and for many of them, face Hilton Magic for the first time.
It was an exciting, back and forth game that lived up to the standards of the September football game and Wednesday’s women’s basketball game. The Hawkeyes came away victorious in those contests.
The team played with a different energy, perhaps recognizing the heightened sense of urgency to turn the season around. While the intensity changed, two things did not.
Free throws. Turnovers.
Iowa entered the game having shot just 65 percent from the free throw line on the season. The struggles continued, and perhaps reached a peak level of abysmal, as they shot just eight free throws all game, making only one (13 percent).
Iowa State sank 75 percent of their free shots, converting on 15 of their 20 attempts.
The margin of victory was six. Iowa left seven points on the floor.
In each of the last two games, the Hawkeyes committed 18 turnovers, averaging 14.4 per game. Thursday was no different as the Hawkeyes coughed it up 18 times yet again, 12 times in the second half.
The Cyclones made them pay, turning those 18 turnovers into 28 points. The Hawkeyes squeaked out just nine points off of eight Iowa State turnovers.
Iowa lost the points off turnover margin by 17. Combined with seven missed free throws, the Hawkeyes gifted the Cyclones with a 24-point advantage. And they still only lost by six.
Jordan Bohannon led the Hawkeyes with 19 points, making five three balls on the night, in a team-high 31 minutes.
Tyler Cook, the team’s leading scorer with 14.6 per game, was held to just two points on the night, making one of only five shots. He did, however, grab eight rebounds and toss out five assists.
A band of teammates pitched in and made valuable contributions in Cook’s place. Freshman Jack Nunge started alongside Cook and chipped in 18 points and eight rebounds.
Cordell Pemsl played impactful minutes down the stretch, pitching in 10 points and hauling in eight rebounds. The trio of Nicholas Baer, Brady Ellingson, and Maishe Dailey combined for 21 points, 18 rebounds, and seven assists.
Freshman star Lindell Wigginton led the Cyclones with 24 points, while Nick Weiler-Babb and Donovan Jackson added 15 and 12, respectively.
For the fifth time in six games, McCaffery changed the starting lineup, hoping to find a combination that could fix the Hawkeyes’ three-game skid. Overall, the rotation seemed to work.
Ellingson and Nunge started alongside regulars in Bohannon, Cook, and Isaiah Moss. In the first half, Iowa looked to be in a solid rhythm, one that they hadn’t been in at all as of late (except maybe for a brief stretch at Assembly Hall on Monday).
The Hawkeyes took a 41-36 lead into halftime, thanks in part to an impressive end-of-the-half stretch. The Hawkeyes made each of their last four three-point attempts and didn’t commit a turnover in the last 8:46 of the half.
Iowa held Jackson, the Cyclones’ leading scorer, to just five first half points and out-rebounded the Cyclones 28-18 in the first frame (53-31 advantage for the game). Hustle plays kept Iowa in the game throughout the night.
The second half was much of the same as the two teams went back and forth for the majority of play. Iowa State used a 7-0 run midway through the half to take a 63-57 lead, and eventually pushed the margin all the way to 10. The Hawkeyes got as close as three points away, but never could get all the way back.
Is it a moral victory? Is it just another loss? Or even still, is it an even more painful loss than normal because it is the Cy-Hawk rivalry game?
For an outsider, it’s easy for me to say Thursday’s loss, while tough to swallow, is a moral victory. A struggling team isn’t always going to flip the switch and go beat a rival at their place. You need something to build on first.
Thursday was a big step in the right direction for these young Hawkeyes. Clearly, free throw numbers have to improve and turnovers have to be kept to single digits, but the competitive fight for the Hawkeyes was there from the opening tip. It was close, and they competed.
That’s something to build on.
Iowa (4-6, 0-2) returns home on Sunday to play Southern University at 4:00pm CST.