IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa decided on the slogan "Rising" this season for a program on the way up. Tuesday night's nationally televised loss to mighty Michigan State showed the Hawkeyes had not arrived.
The Spartans limped into a raucous Carver-Hawkeye Arena missing two of its top players, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, and another, Keith Appling, competed with a heavily taped wrist. They were ripe for the picking. Instead, they reminded Iowa who's the boss in the Big Ten with a 71-69 overtime victory.
MSU gutted it out. The statistic repeated by McCaffery and his Hawkeyes throughout the post-game press conference was that the visitors held and 8-2 edge on 50-50 balls. That was to say, when the going got tough, the tough got going.
"We weren't tough at all," McCaffery said.
The coach attributed Wednesday's 75-67 loss at Michigan to lacking toughness. That's two games in less than a week to the top teams in the Big Ten where McCaffery felt like his guys lacked the necessary intestinal fortitude.
"We got to challenge guys to be better than they are," McCaffery said.
He and his coaches will. And the players will keep working to take that next step necessary to beat the best.
It was easy to get swept up in the disappointment of being that close, again, to beating the Spartans and instead losing for the 11th time in 12 games. It hurt the players, coaches and fans. It's been a long journey from the conference basement and now everyone can see the mountain top.
That last few feet can prove the hardest to cover.
"When you have a win like this against a quality team, you feel fortunate," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "Carver was back to the way it was when Tom Davis was here. It was rocking."
Davis last coached Iowa in 1998-99. That's a lot of lean years. And Izzo was right. The old arena was electric Tuesday night.
The atmosphere didn't much faze MSU. It's been so good for so long and play in that type environment almost nightly.
So, while most everything was in place for the Iowa win, it boiled down to who wanted it more. And the team that lost at home Saturday to rival Michigan turned out to be that squad.
"I'm not blaming the players and I told them that we're all in this together," McCaffery said. "We apparently didn't to a good enough job of getting (them) ready. The game plan wasn't good enough. Our effort wasn't good enough. We weren't tough enough."
McCaffery has built up this program with that all-for-one mentality.
"That's on us," senior Roy Devyn Marble said of the toughness." The coaches can't do that for us."
That's the coach and the star player taking responsibility, not pointing fingers. That's a good sign.
In a game like Tuesday's, plenty of plays can be rehashed as being the deciding factor. In truth, adding them up equals the difference.
Iowa suffered through an almost 15-minute stretch without a field goal. That hurt. The Hawkeyes missed 13 fouls shots. Ouch. Their bench was outscored, 18-15, against a depleted opponent. Not good.
"I think they have a heck of a basketball team but I don't think they played their best game and I don't think we played our best game," Izzo said. "I feel very fortunate to come out of tonight with a win."
The future hall of fame coach wasn't patronizing. You could see the relief in his eyes.
So, instead of building on a win against the special Spartans, Iowa must build on Tuesday's positives. The hunger hasn't left.
"We don't lose many games at home," Woodbury said. "It's tough to lose at home in front of a crowd like that. We're not too far away. We made some key mistakes that we need to improve on. I think we'll be ready on Saturday and try to take our anger out on (%%MATCH_8%%)."
Iowa last won in Champaign during Davis' last season. Jess Settles played on that team. He was born in 1974 and turns 40 this year.
Goals remain in this marathon. Nobody said the run would be easy.