By Pat Harty
Rarely do I ever call out the officials to explain a tough loss.
It just seems weak and accusatory, an excuse to soften the blow delivered by the agony of defeat.
But this time I’ll make an exception because the Iowa men’s basketball team lost to Rutgers 48-46 on Wednesday in Piscataway, New Jersey, and it was due largely to one of the worst foul calls I’ve ever seen.
The touch foul on Keegan Murray with 1.9 seconds left to play shouldn’t have been called under any circumstance.
But to have called it in a game in which physical play had been allowed throughout makes absolutely no sense.
Ron Harper Jr. made both free throws and that proved to be the difference as Iowa fell to 13-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten.
Coaches and players often say when asked what they want most from the officials is consistency when calling fouls.
And Wednesday’s game had that until the game was on the line.
The officials allowed the game to be physical and both defenses took advantage of that.
However, the foul called on Keegan Murray at the end of the game was in complete contrast to how the game had been called to that point.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was calm as he met with the media afterwards, but when asked about the foul called on Keegan Murray, McCaffery stayed calm, but made it obvious how he felt.
“I saw really good defense,” McCaffery said. “It was a really physical, hard-fought game. It shouldn’t come down to that.”
Keegan Murray still had a chance to win the game after Harper made his two free throws, but Murray’s turn-around jump shot from 3-point range fell short.
Murray was asked about the foul call on the Learfield post-game radio show.
“I can’t really comment on that, but I was playing defense and they called a foul,” Murray said.
Wednesday’s game was played on the 29th anniversary of the death of former Iowa forward Christ Street in an automobile accident.
Iowa paid tribute by having arguably its best performance on defense this season, and for a quite a while.
Iowa sometimes unravels when the offense sputters, as was the case with the offense in Wednesday’s game as Iowa shot just 28 percent from the field and had no bench points.
But Iowa stayed locked in on defense and matched Rutgers from a toughness and tenacity standpoint on that end of the floor.
Iowa entered the game leading the Big Ten in scoring, and ranked fourth nationally, with an 86.2 per-game average, while Rutgers entered the game known more or its defense, especially when playing at home.
Iowa showed that it could compete in a defensive grinder. It just didn’t close the deal.
The foul call on Murray in the closing seconds left so much to be desired, but Iowa also couldn’t close the deal.
Who knows how the game would have ended if it had gone into overtime. But at least the outcome would have been decided by overtime instead of by a questionable foul call.
Wednesday’s game was arguably the most physical game that Iowa has played this season, and yet, it was decided by a touch foul in the final seconds.
It was decided by an official rather than by the players on the court.
And that’s disappointing.
Of course, Harper deserves credit for making both free throws, but he shouldn’t have been at the free throw line based on how the game had been officiated to that point.
The Iowa players have to put this loss behind them with Penn State coming to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday in what will be Iowa’s only Saturday home game this season.
Iowa was dismal on offense in Wednesday’s game, but some of the credit has to go to Rutgers.
The encouraging thing is that Iowa played well enough and hard enough on defense to still have had a chance to win at the end.
It’s just unfortunate that it came down to a touch foul in a game in which touching and grabbing had been allowed throughout.