An Iowa-Illinois basketball game with legitimate high stakes? A packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena generating a thrilling atmosphere? Two hours of rough-and-tumble physical play? Feisty post-game action? #18 Iowa and #19 Illinois threw it back to the late '80s -- and the height of the Iowa-Illinois rivalry -- on Sunday and the result was an absolutely crackling Big Ten game. Iowa used a strong finishing surge to pull off a 72-65 win over the Fightin' Illini, snapping their seven-game winning streak in the process.
This game was a battle from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Both teams traded punches, but the Hawkeyes were the side landing more body blows late in the bout. After Iowa built an early 10-5 lead, Illinois went on a 10-2 run of their own. After Iowa tied the game at 15-all, the teams traded 8-0 runs that left things tied at 23. Iowa and Illinois traded buckets for the rest of the half, before Kipper Nichols hit a basket with 20 seconds remaining to give Illinois a 31-30 halftime lead. The second half started with more of the same, before Iowa went on a 10-2 with 13 minutes to play to open up a 44-38 lead. Illinois wasn't done yet, though, and kept fighting until they had a 59-55 lead with 5:30 to play. Fredrick made a pair of free throws on back-to-back possessions to tie the game at 59-all with four minutes to play, before Andre Feliz gave Illinois a 62-61 lead with four minutes to go.
The final four minutes of this game were all-Iowa, though. Just as they had against Rutgers, Iowa used a brilliant finishing kick to complete a tough home win against a good opponent. Iowa outscored the Illini 11-3 over those final four minutes, and the only Illinois points came on a three with two seconds remaining and Iowa up 10 points. The Hawkeyes got clutch threes from Connor McCaffery and Luka Garza, as well as a free throw line jumper from CJ Fredrick, and a free throw and a game-icing dunk from Joe Wieskamp.
Ballgame! pic.twitter.com/A8eSNPXiq4— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) February 2, 2020
Just as important as the clutch shot-making from Iowa at the end of the game was their defense, though. Iowa put the clamps on Illinois' offense and effectively held them scoreless for those last four minutes (until Ayo Dosunmu's meaningless three). They forced Illinois into bad shots and -- more importantly -- kept them off the offensive glass. Illinois had six offensive rebounds in the first 16 minutes of the second half (which they turned into seven points); they had none in the final four minutes. And after getting rung up for 12 fouls in the first 13 minutes of the second half (and putting the Illini in the bonus with several minutes to play), Iowa didn't send the Illini back to the line at all at the end of the game. Iowa's offense gets most of the headlines, but their late-game defense has been critical to several of their recent wins.
Offensively, this was a very uneven display from the Hawkeyes. 70 of their 72 points were scored by four players: Garza, Wieskamp, Fredrick, and McCaffery. (The only other points came on a Joe Toussaint floater that was Iowa's first field goal of the game, funnily enough.) Illinois outscored the Iowa bench 29-0. That's probably not a winning formula going forward, but it worked today because of Iowa's Fantastic Four. The headliner was -- who else? -- Luka Garza, who finished with 25 points on 9/16 shooting, a game-high 10 rebounds, a steal, an assist, and a block. The most remarkable thing about Garza's output in this game might be that through the first 15 minutes of the game, he had been held scoreless. He exploded for 11 points in the final five minutes of the first half, then added another 14 points in the second half. While Garza's customary display of low-post brilliance was present in this game, he was also able to really showcase his range in this game, going a blazing 4/9 from three-point range. LET THE THREECOCK FLY, PEOPLE.
LUKA GARZA DAGGER pic.twitter.com/LqqZJ5tQYF— Heavens! (@HeavensFX) February 2, 2020
Outside of Garza, Iowa also got a sensational showing from CJ Fredrick in this game. Fredrick went for 18 points with absolutely incredible efficiency numbers: 6/8 from the floor (2/4 from 3-point range), 4/5 from the free throw line. Fredrick was really dialed in for this game and his clutch shot-making was critical to Iowa's win. Joe Wieskamp added 18 points of his own on 6/11 shooting (1/3 from deep and 5/7 at the free throw line), while also chipping in six rebounds, an assist, and a steal. His dunk with 12 seconds to play put an exclamation point on Iowa's win -- and, apparently, made some folks on the Illini BIG MAD.
Replay: Illinois coach says 'that's bullshit' to Fran, Fran ain't having it, says 'that's fucking bullshit' again, Fran calls off handshake line pic.twitter.com/qfHZcAHBdF— Heavens! (@HeavensFX) February 2, 2020
Former Iowa great Greg Brunner had a theory on why Illinois was so peeved at the end of the game:
Illinois assistants were pissed about the dunk at the end of the game. Your down 8 with 30 seconds to go and your still attacking. You miss a bunny and get it thrown over your head for a dunk and complain about it... I have seen a comeback down 14 with 52 seconds left... #next— Greg Brunner (@brunner44) February 2, 2020
If Illinois was really mad about Wieskamp's dunk... get outta here with that nonsense.
The final member of Iowa's Fantastic Four was Connor McCaffery, who had one of his best games in an Iowa uniform today. McCaffery played a game-high 37:46 (basically all but two minutes of the game) and had nine points on 3/5 shooting (all 3-point tries) as well as three rebounds, three steals, and seven assists against zero turnovers. McCaffery's presence kept Iowa's offense from bogging down; he was a key part of Iowa's ball movement and harrying efforts on defense. And while McCaffery isn't known for his scoring prowess, but he made some big shots today. The first boosted Iowa's lead from 7-5 to 10-5 and gave him som early confidence, which was much-needed. His second three tied the game at 15-15. But none were bigger than his third three-pointer, which gave Iowa a 64-62 lead with 3:35 to play that they would not relinquish.
BOOM CMAC FOR THE LEAD pic.twitter.com/sOAgSeROeN— Heavens! (@HeavensFX) February 2, 2020
Though Iowa's bench didn't contribute any points in this game, they did manage to find other ways to contribute. Cordell Pemsl had four assists and two rebounds, while Bakari Evelyn added two assists and a rebound. Ryan Kriener had three rebounds, two blocks, a steal, and an assist as well. Hopefully some of Iowa's bench players can find their scoring touch in upcoming games, though, as their points will be needed eventually.
But, overall, this was another huge win for Iowa in a season that's already featured a lot of big wins.
Iowa now has 5 wins this season against AP ranked teams. That is tied with Baylor for the most such wins in the nation this season. #Hawkeyes— BTNStatsGuys (@BTNStatsGuys) February 2, 2020
Iowa found a way to beat the hottest team in the Big Ten, a team that had already gone into Madison and Ann Arbor and come away with victories this season. Thursday's loss to Maryland was disappointing, but Iowa managed to respond in a big way today. That will be the key to managing this final month of the regular season: losses will happen, but if Iowa is able to bounce back from those defeats and keep a single loss from snowballing into a two-, three-, or four-game losing streak, then they're still going to be well-positioned to do big things this season. This win pulled Iowa within a game of the Big Ten lead:
These next five weeks are going to be wild.
NEXT: Iowa returns to the road to face Purdue in West Lafayette on Wednesday (6 PM CT, BTN).