Iowa Men's Basketball

Aggression in "combat" carries Iowa basketball to another day at Big Ten tournament

Iowa attacks, rebounds, staves off Illinois in Garden

Iowa's Tyler Cook (5) finishes a baseline drive for a dunk against Illinois' Michael Finke in the first half of the Hawkeyes' 96-87 Big Ten tournament win over the Illini Wednesday in New York's Madison Square Garden. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa's Tyler Cook (5) finishes a baseline drive for a dunk against Illinois' Michael Finke in the first half of the Hawkeyes' 96-87 Big Ten tournament win over the Illini Wednesday in New York's Madison Square Garden. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

NEW YORK — The things that killed Iowa’s men’s basketball team in the regular season were mere annoyances to brush off their jerseys Wednesday in the Big Ten tournament.

Giving up 14 3-pointers? No big whoop. Committing 18 turnovers? Just a nuisance. Being faced with an opponent going on a run? Just reverse it and go on one yourself.

Playing with energy and playing together, as Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery put it after the game, stopped the Hawkeyes from going home, winning their Big Ten tourney opener for the first time in four years. They took the lead with 16:45 left in the first half and withstood repeated threats to get a 96-87 victory over Illinois in Madison Square Garden.

Iowa, now 14-18, plays 13th-ranked Michigan Thursday at approximately 1:25 p.m. (BTN) for the right to get to the tourney quarterfinals. That beats an early flight home by about 1,000 miles.

“It’s nice to have the chance to stay overnight at the Big Ten tournament,” said Iowa junior forward Nicholas Baer, who sank four free throws in the game’s last two minutes.

Baer helped. All kinds of Hawkeyes helped. Ten scored. All 11 who played made useful plays.

The biggest? That’s hard to quantify, but here’s a nomination of someone who made his seven minutes in the game count:

After Illinois had cut the Iowa lead to 63-61 with 10:13 left, Tyler Cook scored for the Hawkeyes and was fouled. He missed his free throw, but lightly used forward Ahmad Wagner muscled away the rebound and immediately fired the ball outside to Jordan Bohannon.

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A moment later, Bohannon had made one his five 3-pointers on the way to 25 points. Assist, Wagner.

“That’s an effort play,” Wagner said. “Missed free throw, got it back, find the shooter. We work on that. Know your personnel on the court.

“I knew Jordan wasn’t going to miss. Gave it to him. He did the rest.”

That was smart, Wagner was told.

“Smart move,” he concurred.

McCaffery said “You can run on down the roster” and find Hawkeyes to laud.

“Cook and (Luka) Garza were spectacular,” he said of the front line players who had 19 and 20 points, respectively.

“And Bohannon, what can you say about him? You knew they were going to come after him. They were running at him, doubling him, they rotate guys on him, and he just gets 25.”

McCaffery was asked if Bohannon is underappreciated.

“Not by me,” the coach said. “If he’s underappreciated, that person has no business appreciating anything.”

But it was far more than the J-Bo Show. Iowa had a 40-20 rebounding advantage, and canned 34 of 41 free throws to Illinois’ 9-of-12.

The Hawkeyes had letups against Illinois’ pressure defense and physical play, but were aggressive offensively virtually the entire game and drew 30 fouls.

“They went on their runs,” Garza said, “but we combated them.”

“Combat” seemed a fitting term. Wagner briefly went to the dressing room after an Illinois player’s knee struck Wagner’s leg above the knee. There were three play-stoppages because an Iowa player was bleeding. Cook cut his right thumb on the rim during a dunk attempt. The other two delays came because Garza got blood on his jersey.

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“The funny thing about it,” Cook said, “you don’t even realize or feel it till you see the blood.”

All three players said they were fine. Winning, which Iowa has done twice in a row for the first time since late December, never hurts.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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