By Adam Jacobi on January 11, 2018 at 10:44 pm
Luka Garza is a party guy
© Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Mired in a brutal Big Ten slump, Iowa pulls off a stunner at Champaign-Urbana to pick up its first conference win.

Iowa came back from 20 points down late in the first half to rally and upend the host Illinois Fighting Illini, 104-97, in overtime Thursday night. Jordan Bohannon led all scorers with 29 points, including a 5-for-12 performance from behind the arc, and Tyler Cook registered another double-double with 21 points, 13 rebounds, and a trio of assists and steals.

Iowa now moves to 10-9 (1-5) on the season, while Illinois remains winless in conference play.

No sense in sugarcoating it: the first half was grim. Iowa took a 4-2 lead on a pair of Cook buckets, then went scoreless for nearly 5 straight minutes as Illinois slogged its way to a 13-0 run. The Illini lead grew to 34-15 shortly thereafter, and this looked like a laugher. At that point in the game, someone named "Kipper Nichols" — which, out loud, sounds like a rare variant of a coin from the 1850s or whatever — had already scored 11 points... which is 2 more than the amount of turnovers the Hawkeyes had already committed.

Illinois easily fought off a Hawkeye push then grew the lead to a game-high 49-29 on a Trent Frazier 3-pointer with under 4 minutes left in the first half. The Hawkeyes were careless with the ball, half-hearted on perimeter closeouts and looking like a team that wasn't cut out for Big Ten ball. 

And then the Illini got complacent. Their defense got sloppy, their shot selection suffered, and Iowa quickly worked back to within 13 points at the break... at which point Iowa really turned on the jets and scored the first 10 points of the second half in just five possessions. In a span of 5 minutes and 38 seconds, Iowa had erased 17 of that 20-point deficit.

Illinois' shooting cooled off because 1) shooting 61% from behind the arc won't hold up unless you have multiple Curry siblings on your team, and 2) Iowa switched to a 1-3-1 zone that baffled the Illini. Concurrently, the Hawkeye bigs started pounding the offensive glass — 11 of Iowa's 17 offensive boards came after halftime — and that's a lethal combination with the way Iowa's outside shooting was starting to pick up.

Still, this was a fight, and both teams were up to it. Yes, Iowa was within 3 early... but Illinois didn't cede further ground easily. Here are some second-half milestones:

  • 17:52 — First time Iowa within 3
  • 12:53 — First time Iowa within 2
  • 7:31 — First time Iowa within 1
  • 5:44 — First tie
  • 3:01 — First time Iowa leads

That's nearly 15 minutes of game time spent trying to gain back the last 4 points of territory needed for the win — that's a fight. From there it looked like the floodgates might open, as Iowa took a 5-point lead late, but Frazier hit a running three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime at 90-90.

By that time the damage had been done, though — Iowa had fouled out three Illini starters in regulation, and a fourth rotation member joined them in OT — and the Hawkeyes scored the first 10 points of overtime to effectively end the game. Illinois was never closer than 7 from there on out, and that's a W.

One last key factor was Iowa's unusual success at the free throw line. The Hawkeyes made their first 16 (!!!!) free throws, which is about as likely as Adam Jacobi making 16 straight free throws, and all told Iowa took fine advantage of its parade to the line by finishing 33-for-40. A Maishe Dailey miss kept the door open for Frazier's game-tying buzzer beater, yes. That was inopportune. But if Iowa has even a normal game at the line, this one's never even close to begin with, much less an Iowa road win.

  • 10-10: Jordan Bohannon
  • 9-9: Luka Garza
  • 4-4: Isaiah Moss

And hey. Hey. This is an Iowa road win, in the Big Ten. There are no cheapies on the slate this year (not even for the, uh, good teams) and Iowa found a way to claw back and make more difference-making plays than Illinois. We saw the same level of fire and effort in the second half that we got from them last season — that made us think that ragtag gang of freshmen was ready to make some Big Ten noise this year. They've reminded themselves not only of what it takes to win a conference game this year, but that they have what it takes. For all the frustration on the season, all the halftime tirades, all the cranky butthead fans on social media demanding wins or whatever... these guys already have what they need.

Next stop is a trip to Rutgers. A 2-game winning streak to take back to Iowa City before facing mighty Purdue sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

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