Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa 72, Illinois 65: In-your-face Hawkeyes men's basketball team gives big smiles to fans

Hawkeyes win fierce fight against Fighting Illini

IOWA CITY — They’ll dunk on you with an eight-point lead and 12 seconds left.

They’ll get in an argument with a game official after a game ends.

They’ll blow kisses, pound chests, talk trash. They are the Iowa men’s basketball players of 2020, and they play with a hard, competitive edge. It’s the kind of thing you might hate and find punkish if you’re not one of their fans.

It’s what most of the sellout crowd of 15,006 (there were Illinois fans here, too) embraced with both arms and full lung power at the 72-65 defeat the No. 18 Hawkeyes (16-6, 7-4 Big Ten) gave No. 19 Illinois (16-6, 8-3) Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“Probably the most-intense Big Ten game I’ve played,” said Hawkeye sophomore guard Connor McCaffery, who may have had his best game in league play. “Every possession was such a grind at both ends.”

Iowa did the majority of the grinding in the final 5:28, after Illini Coach Brad Underwood called a timeout with his team up 59-55. The Hawkeyes snapped off 17 of the next 20 points, taking the lead for good when McCaffery unhesitatingly took and sank a corner 3-pointer with 3:33 left.

It was a seesaw of a game with 14 lead changes, and it took those moments of self-confidence like McCaffery’s to seal this deal. Iowa was up 66-62 with 1:26 left and Luka Garza shot his eighth 3-pointer of the day. He missed, and Illinois rebounded.

So what happened after Illinois missed on its subsequent possession? McCaffery got the ball to Garza behind the arc again, and Garza fired again without flinching. Three points, a 69-62 lead with 38 seconds left, a crowd going wild, and an armbar placed on a win over the team that began the day alone atop the Big Ten.

The All-America center-in-waiting had 25 points after going scoreless in the game’s first 15 minutes.

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“If you pick up anything from Luka,” Underwood said, “it’s the mental piece. He’s two passes ahead all the time.”

“Nine is the most 3s I’ve ever taken and four is the most I’ve ever made in a game,” Garza said.

“He can shoot 18 if he wants as far as I’m concerned,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said.

“I just have a tremendous amount of confidence in myself wherever I’m at on the court,” Garza said, “because of everything I’ve done, all the hard work I’ve put in. I know I can make shots and I think my teammates have instilled a lot of confidence in me.

“I feel like I could have hit all nine of them.”

Iowa needed every bit of the confidence and edge against an Illinois team that brought plenty of its own here.

Yes, there was hostility immediately after the game. A pair of Illini assistant coaches let Fran McCaffery know they didn’t appreciate Joe Wieskamp dunking (after a three-quarter court baseball pass from Connor McCaffery) with the defense supposedly willing to let the final 12 seconds expire.

Wieskamp said he thought he’d be fouled, so “I was like ‘Why not go take the easy bucket?’ ”

“I apologize if I offended any of their players or coaches,” said Wieskamp, “because in no way did I mean that against them, I guess.”

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Connor McCaffery had the kind of postgame criticism for official Mike Eades’ handling of the game in its final seconds that would have gotten his father a suspension had he said something similar. That may trouble the Big Ten. The player’s performance gave the fans pleasure.

“His value, I think, is so intricate,” Fran McCaffery said. “If you really study the game, he started at the 4-spot (power forward), played the 2-spot (off-guard), played the 3-spot (small forward), finished the game running the point, had seven assists and no (turnovers).”

He also didn’t turn the other cheek when he felt he was getting fouled needlessly in the game’s final seconds. Connor isn’t afraid to let his elbows talk a little, too.

None of the postgame histrionics bugged Underwood in his postgame session with reporters. He poured praise on the Hawkeyes.

“I sit in league meetings with (Fran McCaffery),” Underwood said. “He’s a tough son of a gun. I think I’m kind of cut from the same cloth a little bit.

“He’s got his kids believing. That’s 99 percent of the battle today in college coaching, getting your team to believe in you and taking on some of your characteristics. I like to think our guys are doing the same.”

Underwood added this: “I just think they’re really good.”

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

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