IOWA CITY, Iowa - Zach McCabe showed up to answer the tough questions. He fought back tears while doing it. It hurt.
The Iowa senior missed an open three-pointer late in Saturday's 79-75 loss to rival Wisconsin. It wasn't the reason the Hawkeyes dropped the crucial Big Ten contest. It was one of many factors, not the least of which was the opponent playing more intensity from the opening tip.
That's the most disheartening part of the outcome if you're on Iowa's side. There's no excuse for the visiting team to be more energized when your building is packed to the rafters with hungry fans who've been waiting for an NCAA Tournament berth since 2006, let alone their first regular-season conference title in 35 years.
"We just didn't come out ready to play today," said Hawkeye junior Josh Oglesby, who scored 17 points. "That's sad because the atmosphere was great. The fans were in it. And we didn't play well."
Perhaps the pressure from the stakes for a program climbing the mountain from the depths of the league basement overcame it. Repeating the one-game-at-a-time mantra becomes more difficult as the season advances.
Iowa entered action with an opportunity to win a championship. It also led the fourth-place Badgers by a half game. It's all but eliminated from the title chase and its chances of earning a first-round bye in the conference tournament also took a big hit.
"We were talking before the game about what this meant to us and we let a huge opportunity get away," McCabe said. "We've got to play with a lot more intensity or it's going to be a struggle for us the rest of the way."
As perennial front-runners Ohio State and Michigan State showed earlier this month in winning in hostile Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the accomplished Badgers played with the focus and determination that's allowed it to finish fourth or better in the league the last 12 seasons. Iowa's taken great strides in coach Fran McCaffery's four years. The next step has proven to be the most difficult.
Saturday's lack of intensity showed up in poor Hawkeyes' defense. It got so bad, McCaffery switched to zone against a team that shoots well from the outside. It seemed better than giving up easy penetration and lay-ins to Wisconsin.
"Not well," McCaffery said when asked how his team played defensively. "No, not well. Not well at all. The only thing that really worked was kind of staying in the zone. We didn't play that, that well, but at least we had some semblance of keeping them in front of us."
The 16th-ranked Badgers built a 40-31 halftime lead by shooting 16-28 (57.1 percent) from the floor. To Iowa's credit, it exited the intermission motivated and grabbed a four-point lead with 6:27 left in the game. It came courtesy of a 17-7 win over six minutes where the Hawkeyes defended and rebounded.
The defensive intensity exhibited during Iowa's comeback disappeared down the stretch. The Badgers netted 21 points in the game's final 6:27.
"We didn't get big stops when we needed them," Hawkeye Point Guard Mike Gesell said. "We didn't do a good enough job of rotating, especially when they were taking us off of the dribble. Wisconsin really has the ability to stretch the floor with all the shooters that they have and our rotations just weren't what they needed to be."
The Hawkeyes knew what they were facing. They played better defense the first time the teams met, a 75-71 Wisconsin win on Jan. 5 in Madison.
"It was weird that we didn't come out as energetic as we have in the past," Iowa Center Gabe Olaseni said. "We definitely picked it up in the second half but we didn't make plays down the stretch."
The Hawkeyes have dropped three home games to three top-half Big Ten teams - Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin - by a total of 14 points. Win one of them, and they're still in the championship discussion. Capture all three contests and they'd control their own destiny.
Now, Iowa heads on the road for two games in three days, Tuesday at Minnesota and Thursday a make-up in Indiana then comes to town on Sunday. It's a half game from falling out of the conference's top four, a slip that would require it to play on the first day of the league tourney next month.
The Hawkeyes have responded to setbacks all season. They've not lost back-to-back games. They were motivated by a chance at a championship.
Iowa needs to dig deep now. It's playing for NCAA Tournament seeding and a chance to continue its climb up the college basketball charts. It's running out of chances to take the next step.
TIP-INS: Four players scored in double-figures for the Hawkeyes. They include: Marble (21), Oglesby (17), Olaseni (10), and Gesell (10)…Marble registered the first double-double of his career (21 points, 11 assists…Oglesby tied his season high with 17 points…Marble recorded a career high in assists (11)…Marble has moved up to No. 9 on Iowa's career scoring list. He moves past Dean Oliver. Marble now has 1,565 career points…Roy Marble and Roy Devyn Marble moved up to No. 5 on the father-son scoring combos list. They move past the Maravich combos (Pete and Jaeson; 3,667 points) (Pete and Josh; 3,671 points).