Overview: Both Iowa and Illinois entered the Big Ten tournament in need of a championship to earn a trip to the Big Dance. Iowa had managed to impress in stretches this season (the Hawkeyes swept Wisconsin) and was mentioned as a sleeper in the buildup to the Big Ten tournament. Illinois, however, had fallen on hard times. The Illini had lost 11 of their past 13 -- a stretch that might cost Bruce Weber his job -- prior to Thursday’s 64-61 loss to Iowa.
After a back-and-forth first half that featured a 50 percent shooting clip for Illinois and a 46 percent mark for Iowa (Illinois had a 31-27 lead at halftime after a D.J. Richardson 3-pointer at the buzzer), Illinois stormed out to a 40-33 advantage just minutes in the second half. But Iowa returned fire with a 22-8 run that gave the Hawkeyes a 55-48 advantage midway through the second half.
It was just a four-point game in the final minute, and a crucial Iowa turnover seemed to put Illinois in a position to change the outcome. But the Illini coughed the ball up before they could do anything with that vital possession. Joseph Bertrand hit a 3-pointer with 16.1 seconds to play, cutting Iowa’s lead to one (62-61). But a pair of free throws by Matt Gatens put the Hawkeyes ahead again by three.
Turning point: The Illini appeared to possess a little mojo at the start of the second half, but Gatens squashed that momentum with a pair of crucial buckets near the 14-minute mark. Gatens hit a deep three, then dunked off a turnover on the other end. The game turned off that stretch. Iowa began playing with more vigor, which led to the run that turned the game in the Hawkeyes’ favor.
Key player: Gatens was a star for the Hawkeyes. He scored 20 on 7-for-12 shooting. Beyond the box score, however, the senior stayed calm when Illinois started to pull away at the start of the second half. He also had three rebounds and an assist. He converted all four of his free throw attempts, including two in the final seconds.
Key stat: The Illini committed 12 turnovers compared to Iowa’s six. The Illini went 7-for-25 from beyond the arc.
Miscellaneous: The Illini made this game far more difficult than it had to be with tough shots toward the end of the shot clock … Meyers Leonard scored 18 points in what might have been his final game at Illinois … Freshman Aaron White (13 points) could be a Big Ten star next year.
What’s next: Iowa moves on to face Michigan State at noon on Friday. Illinois will probably end up in the NIT. The bigger question is how long Weber will be on the sideline.