By John Bohnenkamp
Western Illinois opened the men’s basketball season with a win at Nebraska that was all about the defense.
To get back to the way the Leathernecks played to start the season, coach Rob Jeter thinks they need another win just like that.
The 92-71 loss at Iowa on Wednesday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was a cautionary tale for the Leathernecks, who begin the January-February crucible of the Summit League race needing confidence.
Western Illinois fell to 10-4, but it was the Leathernecks’ second consecutive loss.
A college basketball season is all about progress, and while those around Western Illinois are getting better, Jeter thinks the Leathernecks are just stuck in one spot.
“We have to get ourselves past that,” Jeter said. “Everybody’s turning it up, so we have to ramp it up a little bit.”
It starts, he said, with the defense, especially in transition.
Iowa had a 31-2 edge in fast-break points. The Leathernecks gave up 19 fast-break points in last Wednesday’s 84-78 loss at Omaha.
“We’re not very good in transition,” Jeter said. “That’s just the best way to put it. That’s something we’ve got to improve on.”
“It was just attention to detail in transition, and not finding our man,” said guard Trenton Massner, who led the Hawkeyes with 20 points. “Once you get transition dunks, it gets the crowd involved and it’s a downhill spiral from there.”
The Leathernecks are a team that likes to shoot 3-pointers, and with misses there tends to be long rebounds. They were 5-of-30 in 3-pointers in this game, which led to plenty of grab-and-go opportunities for the Hawkeyes.
“Oh, I see bodies back,” Jeter said. “But then I see one guy on the other team wide open. We’ve got to get to him, too.”
“Transition killed us,” said associate head coach Chad Boudreau. “Which Iowa is really good at. And we’re not good at it right now, and they took advantage of that.”
The Leathernecks kept pace early. They were down 25-19 with 8:05 to play in the first half, then Iowa’s Payton Sandfort had eight consecutive points in a run that gave the Hawkeyes a 33-21 lead.
Iowa led 53-33 at halftime.
“To give up 53 points in the first half, wow … that’s not a sign of a good team right now,” Jeter said.
“We knew we were going to have to score to keep up, because they’re going to score,” Boudreau said. “We couldn’t string together stops, we couldn’t string together scores. You get down 20, you’re going to have a hard time against a team that scores like that.”
Keegan Murray, the nation’s leading scorer, had 29 points and 10 rebounds for the Hawkeyes, a matchup problem the Leathernecks could not answer.
A first-half dunk by the sophomore showed Massner what was coming in this game..
“He was running down the lane, and they threw him the ball in transition, and he took off from I don’t know where,” Massner said. “I was like, ‘Oh boy, he’s a different athlete.’”
“What are you going to do?” Jeter said. “If you double him, they can shoot the ball. So you have to make him take tough twos, and he’s got to make them all night.”
The Leathernecks shot 41% for the game. They shot 32.4% in the loss at Omaha, and 45% in an overtime win at Denver to open the Summit League season last Monday.
“We missed shots against Omaha. We missed shots against Denver,” Jeter said. “But that can’t be our calling card. We can’t live off that. We have to do the other things, and that’s the challenge for this group. Can we get enough stops? Can we play inside?
“We’ve got to get our confidence back. And that starts with grinding out a (win) defensively. I think that’s our key. We’ve shown we can play in flashes. But, come on, with transition, we’ve got to figure that out. That is it. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Photo: Iowa’s Payton Sandfort gets a transition dunk in the first half of Wednesday’s game against Western Illinois. (Shivansh Ahuja/hawkeyesports.com)