INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa’s NCAA Tournament dreams ended Thursday inside the RCA Dome with a 76-64 loss to seventh-seeded Cincinnati in the first round.
The dream killer?
The Bearcats’ Jason Maxiell, a 6-foot-7 senior, who drained his first two career 3-pointers and had a game-high 22 points.
“Hugs doesn’t really care about shooting at all,” Maxiell said referring to his coach, Bob Huggins. “With the 3, I just felt comfortable with the range and the shot. And I made the first one and it felt good, and the second one went in.”
Maxiell led No. 23 Cincinnati (25-7) defensively with nine rebounds and six of the Bearcats’ eight blocked shots, leaving the Hawkeyes without a response.
“Maxiell is a senior and he just had a big game,” Iowa forward Greg Brunner said. “He came out big for his team today. That’s what a senior should do. He played well and he was the key to the game.”
Maxiell’s leadership stood out most to Huggins.
“He’s shown more leadership and more willingness to be a leader,” the coach said. “He is a great leader because of his work ethic on this team. In the days leading up to this game, he’s been more vocal than I’ve ever seen him.”
Brunner had a team-high 20 points for Iowa, which ends its season at 21-12. Guard Jeff Horner added 12 and Adam Haluska had 10. Brunner had his 11th double-double of the season, with 10 rebounds.
“I just think he made a big presence in the lane,” Haluska said. “He was throwing a lot of stuff out there. He forced us to make some tough shots from the outside that weren’t going down.”
The Hawkeyes had their worst shooting game in more than a month, hitting 20 of 59 from the field (34 percent). Iowa shot 29 percent against then 10th-ranked Michigan State on Feb. 5.
The Bearcats, on the other hand, shot 27 of 57 for the game (47 percent) and 57 percent in the second half alone.
Four players, including Maxiell, were in double-digits for Cincinnati. James White had 15 points, Nick Williams, fresh off an injury, put in 13, and Eric Hicks finished with 10.
“We picked a bad day to have a not-so-good shooting day and also picked a bad day for Cincinnati to have a good shooting day,” Iowa Head Coach Steve Alford said. “That combination usually ends in the result that it did today.”
It took just more than five minutes for the Hawkeyes to score, on a Mike Henderson layup, which tied the score at 2-2.
The sluggish start didn’t last long, though, and Cincinnati went on a 21-5 run to open the first lead in the first half. Iowa, however, went 17 possessions with just Henderson’s field goal.
“The first four-minute game was 2-2 and we give up 14 in the next four-minute game,” Alford said. “I think both teams were feeling each other out, but they found their rhythm quicker than we found our rhythm. Their defense was more disruptive than ours was early in the game.”
The Bearcats had three blocks and a steal in the first eight minutes of the game, which set the tone of the game early.
But Haluska sparked an 11-4 Iowa run after hitting a jumper with nine minutes on the clock. The run was capped off by a driving, behind-the-back layup by Horner to close the gap to 27-16 with five minutes to play.
The Hawkeyes got to within eight points on free throws by Henderson with two minutes left, but Maxiell’s strong inside presence in the closing minutes kept Iowa from breaking anything open.
Cincinnati led at the half, 32-22.
“I think they really pressured us,” Haluska said. “I wasn’t cutting. I wasn’t getting good looks. And the shots I was taking, they weren’t going down. That kind of left us standing around a little bit and not being able to handle the pressure.”
The Hawkeyes were able to handle the pressure a lot better after the break, with a 10-3 run that got them to within three – the closest they would get Thursday afternoon – with 18 minutes to play.
The Bearcats countered with back-to-back 3s out of Williams on their way to a 14-3 run that all but finished the Hawkeyes.
“It takes a lot of energy,” Horner said of the comeback spurt. “We weren’t playing very well to that point. And their team made another big run, and we were never really able to get back into it. I thought their team is just long and athletic and we really don’t play a lot of teams like that.”
“For whatever reason, we just were not able to find our offensive rhythm in the first half,” Alford said. “The second half was much better. They fought like crazy to get back in it, and to Cincinnati’s credit they went on their big run and we just couldn’t recover from that.”
The lackadaisical start and poor shooting, coupled with Maxiell’s NBA-like performance, were the keys to the game according to Alford.”This game really came down to we didn’t shoot the ball very well,” he said. “We haven’t had too many days like this all year. But we didn’t shoot the ball very well, and they really shot the ball well in the second half.”
The coach did say that the relatively young Hawkeyes will take away valuable experience from the tournament appearance.
“Experience gives our guys knowledge of what it’s like to be in this tournament; knowledge of what it takes and what type of team you’re going to see in the first round,” Alford said. “Our veterans got a taste of what it’s like to be in the NCAA tournament. I think they’ll be a bit more hungry to get back to this point.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com