Illinois looked like its preconference self in building an early lead against Iowa in the Big 10 Tournament Thursday. It extended the lead to 44-37 on a Meyers Leonard jump hook early in the second stanza. But that was fool's gold as the Illini's evil twin took that moment to assert itself.
It was all Iowa from then on as it went on a 20-6 run to demoralize the Illini. It ended a 7 game winning streak for the Illini against their western neighbors.
The Illini shot 50% from the field in the first half and 44% for the game. They had 11 assists in 14 made baskets first half and 18 assists overall. They looked like the team that burst out to a 15-3 record early in the season. But several things conspired to reverse the trend second half.
1. The Illini shot zero free throws during the game, the first time in 15 years of the BTT that has happened. Officials let both teams play, but the Illini needed to attack the basket more, especially in the second half.
2. Iowa had only 2 offensive rebounds first half, but 12 second half offensive boards gave them multiple opportunities to score. And each extra possession damaged Illini psyches, reminding them of their previous failures. The momentum was definitely with the Hawkeyes second half.
3. Meyers Leonard had 18 points and 6 rebounds, but he had none the last 9 minutes. The Illini do well when he is getting touches, but they fall apart when perimeter players decide to take matters into their own hands and stop looking for him.
4. Illinois missed 9 straight shots while Iowa was gaining the lead for good. The Hawkeyes's rally was in part the result of Leonard resting on the bench at the time.
5. When things are going well, the Illini become encouraged and play like they're taught. But they lose focus and confidence when things go against them. Other than Leonard with his height advantage inside, the Illini have no offensive threat who can create his own shots and be trusted to make a decent percentage.
6. Brandon Paul played outstanding defense against Iowa star Matt Gatens, but he did more harm than good for the Illini in other ways. He handed out four assists and had five rebounds, but he scored only four points and was whistled for 7 turnovers. One traveling call was highly debatable, but the others were careless passes that had no chance of success. Illini coach Bruce Weber removed him from the game late.
Assistant coach Jay Price didn't want to single out Paul afterward, but he did have 7 of the 12 Illini turnovers in the game.
"We don't want to blame any individual, but we had some really screwy turnovers. You can't have that. In a tournament like this, every possession counts."
Two other Illini joined Leonard in double figures. D.J. Richardson and Joe Bertrand each totaled 11 points, the latter in 19 minutes. Tyler Griffey had 9 points, six rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in one of his best efforts before fouling out. Tracy Abrams handed out four assists.
Bertrand hit a forced three to put the Illini within one at 62-61, but they had to foul Gatens, whose two free throws produced the final result. The Illini had a chance to tie with a three at the end, but they couldn't get a good look at the basket.
The Illini now await a possible NIT invitation. It is not what they wanted; some players may be less than enthusiastic about it. But they will play if offered. Will Weber still be coaching them next week? That remains to be seen.