IOWA CITY, Iowa — Head Coach Steve Alford called Saturday’s 75-64 loss to Michigan State in front of Carver-Hawkeye Arena’s first sellout crowd of the year an encouraging one, following the sudden dismissal of the team’s leading scorer, Pierre Pierce.
Sophomore Adam Haluska scored a season-high 24 points for Iowa, Greg Brunner put in 16 and Jeff Horner put in 13 as the Hawkeyes battled back from a 53-31 second-half deficit.
“Our guys really fought,” Alford said. “The effort was there, but we just missed a lot of shots. I thought we did a lot of good things. But against the 10th-ranked team, you can’t shoot 28 percent and win a lot of games.”
Iowa (15-6, 3-5 Big Ten) shot 15-of-52 from the field (28 percent) and 23 percent in the first half for its worst shooting performance of the year. The Hawkeyes fired 36.7 percent in the first half against Michigan last month.
While the Hawkeyes benefited from three fouls and three turnovers in the first two minutes of the game, the ball’s inability to get in the basket was a theme that caught on early.
Iowa didn’t get a basket until 16:54 in the first and the Spartans held the Hawkeyes without a basket for 8 ½ minutes midway through the period. Iowa was 5-of-9 from the charity stripe in the stretch, but Michigan State got out to as much as a 12-point lead.
After getting down by 22 with 15:39 to play in the second, Iowa slowly started mounting a comeback against the Spartans (No. 10 AP; No. 12 ESPN/USA Today), who shot 43.6 percent for the game.
A pair of free throws by Horner got the score to within 10 with 10 minutes to play. And for 6 minutes and 47 seconds, the Hawkeyes launched a 17-6 run to cut the Spartans’ lead to three with a minute to play. Haluska scored nine points in the comeback.
“They came back and almost found a way to beat us,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “We didn’t do a very good job down the stretch. Iowa proved it wasn’t going to die, and Michigan State didn’t crumble in the end.”
Michigan State (15-4, 6-2) got double-doubles from Alan Anderson with 11 points and 11 rebounds and Paul Davis with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Kelvin Torbert scored a team-high 16 points for the Spartans.
After Horner’s layup to get the game to within three, Iowa’s last recourse was sending Michigan State to the line. Torbert nailed four consecutive free throws, and Tim Bograkos and Chris Hill both downed a pair. The Spartans were 23-of-29 from the charity stripe.
“I think in the end we pulled together instead of putting our heads down and thinking we’re down by 20,” said Mike Henderson, who earned his first start of the season Saturday. “We just tried to fight together and get the ball inside to Bru, Jeff and Adam. A lot of good things came out of it.”
Foul trouble was a common theme in what Izzo described as a “closely called” game.
Michigan State’s Maurice Ager fouled out with five minutes to go and Anderson sat down with 2:42 on the clock. Iowa lost big players Erek Hansen at 5:41 and Brunner with a minute left.
“We were playing so tentative with the foul trouble we were in,” Izzo said. “I thought we got a little tired and made some poor decisions.”
Alford, though, wasn’t disappointed with the decisions his team made in the final minutes of the second half, saying that this game was one from which the team could gain a lot of confidence.
“If we keep this effort going, we’ll be fine,” he said, “because we’re not going to shoot 28 percent every night.
“I know I’ve got great kids,” Alford added. “We’re going to get better. This was a step forward and now we’ve got to improve.”
Horner compared his team’s current standing to the 2000-2001 season, where Iowa lost Luke Recker and Ryan Hogan to injuries and the team went 1-7 until earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big Ten Tournament.
“We just can’t let this team do that,” the point guard said. “We just have got to figure something out, and I think we can build on those last 16 minutes when we played very well.”
Henderson agreed with his team captain.
“It was a tough loss against a good team and we got a lot out of it – knowing that we can go head-to-head with the guys we still have,” he said. “Going against a team like that, being down by 20 and making the comeback that we did, it really showed a lot for our character.”
Iowa’s going to have another character builder on Wednesday, when it travels to No. 19 Wisconsin for a 7 p.m. contest. The Badgers lost Saturday to Minnesota in Minneapolis. Michigan State hosts Ohio State that night.
“We’re going into a tough place to play,” Brunner said. “They’re playing very poised and very well right now. They’re a different team when they’re playing at home.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com