CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It was so hotly contested and just plain wild here Sunday night. Who wouldn’t want to see a third Illinois-Iowa men’s basketball game this season?
The trouble for the Hawkeyes is that since they were on the losing end of the 78-76 score at Illinois Sunday, they must defeat either Minnesota or Northwestern Thursday (1:30 p.m., CT) in the second round of the Big Ten tournament to face Illinois (13-7 Big Ten, 21-10 overall) in Friday afternoon’s quarterfinals.
This game was for a double-bye in the conference tourney, and the Illini earned the pass to Friday with the win that clinched league’s No. 4 seed. At No. 5, Iowa (11-9, 20-11 overall) has to spend some sweat and soul Thursday to get a chance to win the season series with 23rd-ranked Illinois. The Hawkeyes won the game between the two in Iowa City on Feb. 2, 72-65.
The good thing for Iowa is that the atmosphere at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament won’t be anything nearly as raucously hostile as State Farm Center was for the Hawkeyes Sunday.
Illinois Coach Brad Underwood and some of his players did a loop of the arena main floor after the game, celebrating with their fans. The Illini knew their supporters pumped out a whole lot of decibels, maybe enough to be the difference in the game.
Although, technically the difference was 7-foot Illini freshman Kofi Cockburn blocking a Luka Garza jumper in the paint after Garza caught an inbounds pass on a play that started with 1.6 seconds left.
Garza sat on the court for several moments after that, dejected and frustrated.
“It definitely hurts,” he said. “You work for moments like that, to convert in situations like that. It’s going to stick with me for a while.”
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Garza scored 28 points, 15 after the Hawkeyes fell behind 64-48 with 11:32 left. That marked a 26-point swing from when Iowa was ahead 29-19 midway through the first half, but the Illini rallied for a 41-41 halftime deadlock.
Illinois outshot, outran, out-rebounded and out-defended the Hawkeyes in building its 16-point advantage. Then the pendulum severely swung back as Garza went to work, Connor McCaffery and Bakari Evelyn combined to make three 3-pointers, and Iowa’s defense was much better than it had been in the first three-fourths of the game.
“I thought our execution was excellent coming down the stretch,” said Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery.
Garza’s dunk with 17.8 seconds left cut Iowa’s deficit to 78-76. Illinois star guard Ayo Dosunmu missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation three seconds later and Iowa rebounded. Connor McCaffery drove for a shot and missed, and his tip-in try rolled off the rim, with the carom going out of bounds off an Illinois player with 1.6 seconds left.
“In and out right there,” Connor McCaffery said. “It hurts.”
The Hawkeyes played for the tie, with McCaffery’s inbounds pass going to Garza.
“We knew they were going to have to shoot one over a 7-foot-6 wingspan,” Underwood said about Cockburn.
“Getting it into Luka, we’ll go with him regardless,” McCaffery said. “I felt comfortable throwing in to him there and I think he’ll make the play there more often than not.”
“I knew I didn’t have time to really make a move,” Garza said. “I just tried to go up.
“(Cockburn) is a tremendous player. For his age, how athletic he is, how big he is, how strong he is — it’s something I don’t think we’ve seen in this league for a long time. He’s 7-foot, 290, and just built. ... He’s a problem.”
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“I think despite a loss, it still gives us a little momentum.” Garza said. “Just knowing if we hadn’t put ourselves in a hole it would have been a different situation.”
Garza had his 16th-straight game of 20-plus points, tying Fred Brown’s 49-year-old Iowa record. No one had scored 20 in 16 consecutive Big Ten games since Ohio State’s Dennis Hopson in 1987.
“I would venture to say,” Underwood said about National Player of the Year discussion, “(Garza) would be my front-runner.”