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IOWA CITY - Just two weeks removed from a potential Big Ten championship, the Iowa men's basketball team dropped their fifth game in their final six games in a 66-63 loss to Illinois last night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Illinois forward Jon Ekey drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing with 00.3 seconds left to bury the Hawkeyes. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery hoped to force Illinois guard Tracy Abrahms to make a tough shot, but Ekey got free and nailed the game-winner in front of Iowa's Aaron White.
"It looked like it was going to be a pick-and-pop; Abrams turned the ball screen down," McCaffery said. "We were getting ready to switch it. And when Abrams went the one way, White froze for a second and then didn't get back to him. He contested pretty hard. Kid made a tough shot. You've got to give it to the kid. But you can't get the shot off there. You can't separate. You've got to make Abrams make a tough two."
"We were going to switch it but Abrahms decided not to take it off the ball screen," White said. "Mike (Gesell) stayed in front of Abrahms. I was in the gap, they kicked it to Ekey, I recovered and he made a tough shot."
Officials pushed the clock to .5 seconds, but Zach McCabe's inbound pass was picked off by Abrahms at midcourt.
Iowa (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten) is in complete free-fall mode. The No. 25 Hawkeyes, once ranked as high as No. 10, has finished the regular season with the same overall and league record as last year's team that failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Iowa also lost four of its last six at home after winning 20 straight over a calendar year.
Last night's game symbolized the recent run of futility for the Hawkeyes. Iowa led at halftime but it gave up the lead in the second half. In Iowa's 11 defeats, it led in eight.
Illinois (18-13, 7-11 Big Ten) took charge from the opening tip. The Illini scored on eight of its first 10 possessions and knocked down eight of their first 12 shots to lead 20-6 with 13:48 left in the first half. Then Iowa climbed back in the game on its next possession when Zach McCabe drilled a 3-pointer. Josh Oglesby grabbed a steal, which led to a Melsahn Basabe basket and cut Iowa's deficit to 20-11.
Iowa scored on three of its next five possessions, starting with a Devyn Marble runner in the lane. Basabe putback a Mike Gesell miss and then Aaron White drilled an open 3-pointer to complete a 12-0 run and cut Illinois' lead to 20-18.
Illinois' Tracy Abrahms ended the run with a free throw, but White followed with three free throws on consecutive possessions to tie the game at 21-21. A Gesell jumper gave the Hawkeyes their first lead at 23-21.
The Hawkeyes finished the half with an inbound pass from Gesell to Basabe, who scored with no time left to put Iowa up 34-29.
Illinois - much like Michigan State two days ago - pounced early in the second half. Kendrick Nunn drilled a 3-pointer on the first possession and Abrahms followed with another two possessions later. Rayvonte Rice scored on a layup to give Illinois the lead 37-36. It was reminiscent of the Spartans starting the second half on a 7-0 run two nights ago.
Iowa battled back and led 54-48 on a pair of baskets from Gabe Olaseni. But the Hawkeyes went on a six-possession scoring drought, lasting 5 minutes, 6 seconds, and Illinois bolted on an 11-0 run. Iowa rallied to tie late with an Olaseni putback with 41.4 seconds left, the Illini milked the clock down to 13.1 seconds left when Mike Gesell was called for a foul. That gave Illinois one shot without the shot clock. Then Ekey drilled his 3-pointer.
The loss ruined senior night for Iowa's Devyn Marble, who was held below double-digits for the first time in Big Ten play. he scored eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. White led Iowa with 12 points, while Adam Woodbury and Gesell each scored 11.
Rice, a Drake transfer, led all scorers with 15 points.
Iowa now will be either the five or six seed at next week's Big Ten Tournament.