Hawkeyes miss opportunities, fall to Illini in Big Ten Tournament semifinals

On Saturday, Illinois defeated Iowa for the second time this season and advanced to the Big Ten Tournament finals.


Hannah Kinson

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery looks to pass the ball during the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament semifinals against Illinois on Saturday, March 13, 2021 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Hawkeyes were defeated by the Fighting Illini, 82-71. No. 2 Illinois and No. 5 Ohio State will compete in the championship game tomorrow afternoon.

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — For the second time this season, Iowa men’s basketball lost a close game to Illinois with the contest’s result in doubt with under five minutes to play.

Trailing by as many as 14 in the second half, the Hawkeyes rallied to within five points of lead with 2:45 remaining in the game.

From there, however, the Fighting Illini did not allow the Hawkeyes to complete their comeback effort, holding Iowa scoreless for the game’s final two minutes and 45 seconds and winning, 82-71.

“In this type of game, there’s a lot of things that go on,” junior guard Connor McCaffery said postgame. “I mean [Illinois is] a very good team. So, every possession is really, really important. Couple bounces, I felt like we couldn’t get a bounce. We couldn’t get a [foul] call. It’s just like, at times, we really buckled down and fought through it, and there were just a couple possessions where we might’ve let it get to us a little bit, and that’s the difference in the game. It’s a five-point game with three minutes to go, bottom line. With everything that happened, everything that went on, we were right there.

“I just think, against a team like that, you really need to value every possession, stay mentally tough through everything,” McCaffery said. “People are going to make mistakes. It’s what you do after the mistakes that matter. I think, maybe a couple bounces go our way, maybe you see a different outcome. But you know, like I said, they’re a really good team. They made plays, and I feel like there’s definitely things we can improve on if we were to play them again.”

On Saturday, Illinois outscored Iowa in the paint 52 to 24. Illini center Kofi Cockburn scored 26 points on the day compared to Iowa big man Luka Garza’s 21 on 8-of-21 shooting from the floor.

“It’s always tough,” Garza said. “Obviously, [Cockburn] is a tremendous big man. He’s doing a really good job on both ends. We’re both being physical with each other. So, we’re both wearing on each other. I obviously, probably played more than he did. It’s just what I’ll have to deal with. I’ve been dealing with it in the Big Ten for a while now. I’ve played against a lot of great bigs. I think I gotta do a better job on both ends, I think, you know, dealing with that physicality. I think I kinda got my rhythm in the second half for a little stretch, but obviously, I didn’t end too well. I think it’s just motivation for me, personally, to just be better in the future.”

Illinois and Iowa’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal game was physical, as 32 total fouls were called on the evening — including a flagrant one against Illini guard Da’Monte Williams.

“I think [the officiating] was unusual, just in the sense that, it’s just that it’s Illinois,” McCaffery said. “When you play games with them, it’s just going to be more physical. It just is, and we know that coming in. I don’t think there was necessarily much more the refs could’ve done. In the first half, [the Illini] didn’t really have a lot of fouls called on them. I just think that this game is just so much more physical. Just this matchup, you know, obviously, it’s a little bit of a rivalry matchup. I think that they let things go both ways. It’s a hard game to officiate with how [Illinois] plays and how we played as well. I wouldn’t say [the officials] were like necessarily bad or anything today. I just think it’s kind of a crazy game, a lot of things happening, extremely physical. It is what it is. You just have to play through that and play mentally tough.”

Every time the Hawkeyes were on the precipice of a single-possession deficit, Illinois had an answer. In the second half alone, Iowa trimmed its double-digit deficit to single digits on nine separate occasion.

“They just made big shots and made big defensive stops when they needed to,” senior point guard Jordan Bohannon said. “We put ourselves in better position the second half. We guarded a little better, contained their guards a little better, did a better job in the paint, but we gave up a lot of paint points. They came up big on the defensive end when they needed to. We just, for some reason, couldn’t get, you know, we got within five, but it was around a seven, eight point deficit the entire game. That started in the first half. We just dug ourselves a little hole. We fought like hell tonight to try to get it back, but they played very, very well down the stretch.”

With the Big Ten Tournament now behind them, the Hawkeyes are looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament next week — which is also in Indianapolis, Indiana.

According to head coach Fran McCaffery, the Hawkeyes learned some lessons both on Saturday and throughout the Big Ten season, and now they can apply their knowledge in the NCAA Tournament.

“We work really hard, all of us in this league, to get better and to try to be playing our best basketball, now, in preparation for the NCAA Tournament,” Fran McCaffery said.  “So, we’ll just focus on that. We’ve earned our way in. We’re proud of what we’ve done. We’re not satisfied with what we’ve done. Yeah, today was a loss, but it’s a learning opportunity … You try to get ready when you find out who you’re gonna play and try to advance in the NCAA Tournament. I think our league has prepared us, and everybody else in this league, well for what’s coming.”

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