Iowa almost did it on Sunday night. They almost completed a stunning second half comeback from 16 down to beat #23 Illinois. They almost secured the #4 seed and a first-ever double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Down two with the ball and time running low in regulation, Iowa got a good chance to tie (or win) the game -- they got more than one, in fact. Connor McCaffery drove to the hope and took a runner in the lane that rimmed out. A putback attempt off an offensive rebound also failed to go down. Iowa even got a third chance when the ball was ruled to go out of bounds off an Illinois player, which gave them another shot with 1.6 seconds to play. Alas, Illinois' defense blew up Iowa's play out of a timeout, with Illini defenders knocking CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp off their approach and then Kofi Cockburn blocking Luka Garza's jumper from the free throw line as time expired. Game, blouses. Bad guys win.
The game started well for the Hawkeyes. Iowa went on a 15-4 to open up an early 17-9 lead and led by as much as 10 for a chunk of the first half. That hot start featured some lights-out shooting from deep (Iowa made four of their first five three-point tries), including from CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp. That gave us hope that they would shake off their recent slumps (Wieskamp especially) and regain their form from earlier in the season. That... didn't happen. Those two threes in the game's opening minutes ended up being their only two made threes of the game; they finished a combined 2/6 from long range and just 3/13 from the floor overall (Wieskamp was 2/9 shooting the ball, continuing his miserable current run).
Illinois, of course, inevitably made a run -- they steadily cut away at Iowa's lead in the first half and ended the half on level terms, 41-41. And in the first part of the second half they were by far the better team -- they outscored Iowa 23-7 out of halftime and opened up a 16-point lead with 11:32 to play. Iowa and Illinois essentially traded buckets for the next 4-5 minutes and with 7 minutes to play, Iowa still trailed by 15 (70-55). If you thought the game was over, well, you weren't alone in that assessment! But the game flipped on its ear when Illinois' superstar freshman big Kofi Cockburn picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench. Illinois led 70-55 when he exited the game; they got outscored 12-4 during the four minutes he was on the bench. Iowa's comeback surge continued even after Cockburn re-entered the game and twice they cut the deficit to two points in the final minute of the game. Unfortunately, they couldn't get any closer than that.
Illinois killed Iowa on the offensive glass (12 offensive boards), although they actually didn't do much damage on the scoreboard with all those added looks -- they got just 7 second chance points from those 12 offensive rebounds (Iowa got 10 points from their 7 offensive rebounds). Illinois did force 11 Iowa turnovers (including six steals) and turned those into 11 points and they had an 11-5 edge on fast break points (many of those Iowa turnovers turned into transition buckets for the Illini). Illinois also had a big edge off the bench, as their reserves had 25 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. Iowa's bench had just 14 points and 9 rebounds.
Luka Garza continued his stellar run of play, finishing with a game-high 28 points on 12/21 shooting (1/3 from 3-point range), as well as 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocked shots.
Garza's most effective sidekicks tonight were, surprisingly, Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery. Despite missing a stretch of the first half with a leg injury, he finished with 10 points (on 2/4 shooting, including making both 3s he attempted), plus 8 assists (against just one turnover), and 5 rebounds. Connor was superb on Sunday, especially in the second half as his buckets and assists helped key Iowa's comeback bid. Joe Toussaint had one of his best games yet, too, going off for 14 points (4/7 shooting, including 2/4 from deep), while adding two assists and a rebound. Bakari Evelyn also gave Iowa good minutes off the bench, with 8 points on 3/4 shooting and four rebounds; he made some big shots down the stretch.
As noted previously, Wieskamp and Fredrick had forgettable games -- 7 points on 2/9 shooting, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists for the former; 3 points on 1/4 shooting, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds for the latter. One thing that's become crystal clear over the last two weeks: it's very hard for Iowa to win games when both Wieskamp and Fredrick struggle. If Iowa doesn't want to have short stays in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, they're going to have to find a way to get one or both of those two going.
NEXT: Iowa's next game will be against either Minnesota or Northwestern in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, on Thursday at approximately 1:30 PM CT.