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Rutgers loses battle to Iowa but big picture remains in focus

The Scarlet Knights fell just short on Saturday, but proved once again they are one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a new year, but it was another heartbreaking loss for Rutgers at that hands of Iowa on Saturday afternoon. The Hawkeyes escaped the RAC with a 77-75 victory in what was one of the best played college basketball games all season. Iowa has now beaten the Scarlet Knights three times out of four times over the past three seasons, each by 5 points or less.

Rutgers imposed its will on the Hawkeyes in controlling the pace of the game with its physicality and defense. That’s a sign of a great team, as RU was able to slow down an elite offensive team considerably. It took the best player in the country, Luka Garza, to play his best down the stretch and he finished with a game high 25 points. Rutgers also made several mistakes that helped allow Iowa to outlast the Scarlet Knights. Despite it all, both teams deserve to have big goals after Saturday’s performance.

Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said after the loss, “I knew this game would be a really difficult game. They’re well coached, they are ranked for a reason. (Luka) Garza was a problem watching film. He goes 9 for 11, does a really good job, but our guys played hard and did a really good job too. We came up one possession short against a really good opponent, but that is life in a league like this that we play in and we’ll keep getting better. We played really hard, we had chances. They were one possession better.”

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said “It was won with grit. We beat a really really good basketball team. Very well-coached. They’re quick, they’re aggressive. We turned it over 15 times, we gave up 16 offensive rebounds. Normally you lose those games, you just do. There were a number of lead changes. We kept coming. They kept coming. But I thought the productivity we got off the bench was really good. I think it was our depth and our grit that enabled us to win.”

Bench scoring was a major factor, as Iowa held a 24-6 advantage. However, it was an all too familiar issue that reared its ugly head in the loss. Iowa held a +14 margin at the free throw line and it cost Rutgers the game. The Hawkeyes came in shooting 72% from the charity stripe and were 18 of 23 from the line in this game for 78%. McCaffery explained how Iowa got to the line, stating “You got to drive the ball and you gotta throw it inside. We do both. And that’s how you get to the free throw line.”

The Scarlet Knights, who have thrived for stretches at the foul line this season, including an 11 of 12 second half performance on Tuesday to help seal the victory over Purdue, were a dreadful 4 of 12 for 33%.

Pikiell had said on Thursday that a “big part of this game is the free-throw line.” He was right, but it didn’t work out the way he had hoped.

“It was one of our huge keys to win when the free-throw line battle, obviously we didn’t,” said Pikiell. “They do a lot of things well too, they shoot threes, they make free-throws, they offensive rebound, so we did a lot of good things in a lot of different areas. But we certainly didn’t win the battle of the free-throw line and that was a big key to us going into the game. They score a lot from the free throw line and I tell our guys all the time, you can’t defend the foul line down the stretch.”

Ron Harper Jr., who returned to score 13 points on just 5 of 15 shooting after missing the Purdue game due to a sprained ankle, was blunt in his assessment of his team’s performance from the foul line, which included him going 0 for 3. He said, “What we took away from today is we have to make foul shots. We shot 4-for-12 from the foul line and that’s unacceptable. You are not going to win a lot of basketball games like that. So it is on everybody in the locker room to keep getting better.”

Part of the reason for Rutgers’ struggles from the charity stripe this season is not getting the right guys to the line. That happened again on Saturday, as Geo Baker, a 76% career foul shooter, didn’t have one attempt. The two best free throw shooters for Rutgers this season barely did, as Jacob Young was just 1 of 2 and Paul Mulcahy was 1 of 1. They are shooting 78% and 80% respectively from the line through nine games.

Baker said, “That was one of our keys coming into the game — win the free-throw battle. Obviously we didn’t today. Hard to defend the free-throw line. We just have to be better and we have to work on our free throws.”

It wasn’t just free throws that cost Rutgers in this game, as they only made 10 of 23 layups. Part of that was Iowa, who hold opponents to just 45% shooting from two-point range in large part because of Garza’s ability to change shots. The Scarlet Knights had chances in the first half to build a bigger lead than they did because of missed layups. It’s not a new issue, as Rutgers has struggled at times near the rim this season, despite shooting 53.4% from two-point range overall.

On the flip side, credit Rutgers for holding Iowa 18 points below its season scoring average. It was an encouraging sign for a team that hasn’t played poorly overall on the defensive end this season, but they haven’t played to their potential or consistent enough either. Part of that has been injuries to so many key players and Pikiell not having a full rotation available all season. He loves to utilize the versatility of his roster and show different looks.

Pikiell remarked “They average 95 points and to hold them 18 points under their average certainly means our guys really did a good job on the defensive end of the floor, but one possession short. Our offense could have got that possession or our defense, but we play hard. I like our team a ton.

McCaffery said “They fly around defensively. You gotta give it to them. Their defensive effort and intensity is really good. Always has been since Steve (Pikiell) has been here.”

At the end of the game, Rutgers had a chance to win because of its defense, but failing to get a shot off on the second to last possession with the game clock under ten seconds sunk their chances. They ran a smart play to get Jacob Young a halfcourt heave as the clock expired on the last possession, but it didn’t come close.

Pikiell makes sure to keep his team focused on the task at hand and said after the loss, “We have to play Michigan State, so we have to move on quickly from this.”

He is right, as Rutgers has a big week ahead. They visit East Lansing on Tuesday night, followed by a much anticipated rematch with Ohio State, the only other conference loss RU has suffered, next Saturday at the RAC. The Spartans and Buckeyes are just two more ranked foes for Rutgers, who will slip some from no. 14 after this defeat, as the Big Ten had nine teams in the AP Poll this week.

This was a tough loss to swallow, but it doesn’t change the goals for this team. They beat the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten in Illinois by one possession and have now lost to the team picked to finish in second place in Iowa by one possession. Rutgers will take this defeat to heart and get better because of it. They are clearly one of the best teams in the conference and need to remained focus on the big picture.

Baker lamented the loss by saying “A lot of emotion in the locker room, definitely upset. My takeaway from this game is we can hang with anybody. They’re a really good team. We felt like we should have won the game. We’re a really good team, too.”

For now, circle your calendars. The rematch between Rutgers and Iowa takes place in Iowa City on Wednesday, February 10.