Illinois came into the Big Ten opener against Iowa in a slump, losing two close games to Illinois-Chicago and Missouri in the past week. In front of the first sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye arena in nearly two years, the Illini started their Big Ten season on a positive note.
The ten point win wasn't without a fight from a resilient Hawkeye team under new head coach Fran McCaffrey. It was a game filled with runs and wasn't pretty by any means.
Illinois committed 17 turnovers to Iowa's 13 by game's end, with most coming in the first half. Iowa also got 15 offensive boards to Illinois's 6. The Matto chart wasn't getting lit up tonight, but the Illini used red-hot shooting to stay on top.
Mike Tisdale battled foul trouble all night, playing only 11 minutes in the first half and picking up his fourth foul with nine and a half minutes to go. He came in briefly at the end but only was able to manage 8 minutes in the second half.
Freshman starter Jereme Richmond picked up his third foul halfway through the second half via an intentional in an attempt to stop an Iowa fast break.
Through a combination of hot shooting from behind the arc and forcing errors by Iowa, Illinois took a 49-37 lead into the break.
Illinois made 10 of 12 from behind the arc first half, including their first seven. The charge was led by guards Bill Cole and D.J. Richardson, who hit 4 of 4 and 4 of 5 respectively from behind the arc.
One thing to note was a critical basket by Mike Davis with three and a half minutes to go in the first half. Not only did it give Illinois momentum as he made the basket and drew the foul, but the basket put Davis over the one-thousand point mark for his Illinois career.
After the break, Illinois opened up a nineteen point lead just two minutes into the second half. But rather than fold, Iowa went on a 10-0 run and eventually cut the lead to a nervous six after the Richmond intentional. McCamey stretched the lead back to eleven on two back-to-back clutch baskets with seven minutes to go, including a running floater from the wing as the shot clock expired.
The two teams traded baskets over the final seven minutes, with the Illinois lead peaking at 14 and Iowa getting as close as 8. McCamey secured a double-double with just over a minute to go, notching his tenth assist on a pass that led to an easy layup by Richmond.
McCamey said the three days off after the Missouri game, accompanied by the start of the Big 10 season, allowed the Illini to forget their troubles and come together as a team.
"It's a brand new season. Everybody went home for Christmas and got the holiday spirit out with their families and forgot about the nonconference. Getting a win in any Big 10 game is important."
The family approach was essential. Everyone must contribute for this team to have a successful season. They did that tonight according to McCamey.
"When they focused on me, D.J. came in, Bill came in and hit threes, spread the floor a little bit. And then when it was my turn, I made some plays and hit some big shots. It's all about team with us. We had some losses in the nonconference we thought we shouldn't have. But as a family we stepped up tonight and got the win.
In the end, the Illini were able to withstand the Iowa run and come away with a win on the road. Five Illini players finished with double figures in scoring. McCamey led the charge with 20 followed by Richardson with 17, Davis with 15, Cole with 14 and Richmond with 12. Richardson added 5 assists.
Credit Iowa for playing until the buzzer, but Illinois' hot shooting was too much for the Hawkeyes. Illinois finished 32-48 from the field, mostly due to its 13-18 shooting from behind the arc. The Illini certainly lived by the three tonight.
Iowa was led by sharpshooter Matt Gatens, who made 5 three-point shots on his way to scoring 21 points. Four of the five Hawkeye starters finished in double figures as well, including point guard Bryce Cartwright with 13 points.
Iowa's Achilles heel on the night was free throw shooting. Iowa got to the line 15 times but only converted 8 times.
The win gives Illinois confidence moving forward into the Big Ten season and hopefully erases some of the sour taste from the previous two games. But the Illini assuredly have plenty to work on as they move into a tough conference schedule against some very challenging teams.