Illinois 76, Iowa 64
CHAMPAIGN - Illinois needed a jump-start following three straight losses. On Wednesday, Illinois coach John Groce finally handed the keys to Te'Jon Lucas -- and the 18-year-old turned the ignition of a stalling team.
Making his first career start, the freshman point guard threaded a bounce pass to Maverick Morgan for a wide open baseline jumper on the Illini's first possession. On the second, he found an open Jalen Coleman-Lands for an in-rhythm three. On the third, Lucas hit a three himself.
While his box score didn't jump out (six points, six rebounds, two turnovers), the Milwaukee native brewed up a buzz for the Illini offense, which scored on its first four possessions and made 13 of its first 21 shots -- including six of its first eight three -- to claim a commanding 34-15 lead that it never relented at State Farm Center.
Illinois (13-8, 3-5 Big Ten) shot 9-for-19 from three, assisted on 18 of 26 field goals and never trailed in its largest win over Iowa since a 17-point win in Champaign on Jan. 5, 2010.
Michael Finke scored 17 points off the bench, shooting 7-for-10 from the field and 3-for-5 from three. Maverick Morgan finished with 12 points (4-for-8 FG) and seven rebounds, and Malcolm Hill had 11 points (4-for-7 FG), six rebounds and three assists. Leron Black added 10 points and seven rebounds.
The Illini took a 40-26 halftime lead after shooting 55.2 percent during the first half, including 6-for-11 from three. The offense went cold in the second half, and Iowa eventually cut the deficit to single digits, 66-57, with 3:29 left after a 10-1 run. But there was Lucas again with an answer, sinking two free throws and finding for a dagger three.
Iowa (11-10, 3-5 Big Ten) was led by 12 points each from Nicholas Baer and Ahmad Wagner. Bothered by a back injury, Iowa senior and Big Ten-leading scorer Peter Jok scored just 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting.
Iowa hasn't won three straight games in Champaign since 1977. Illini coach John Groce is now 3-4 against Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
What it means
The Illini took the first small step up the ladder. The Illini are a pretty good team at home (10-2), with the exception of second-half collapses to Winthrop and Maryland. But they have several more big steps ahead to make up for those two bad losses. The Illini -- who got a bit of a gift with Jok's injury -- need to win a few on the road to get to where they want and climb out of this hole. That starts Saturday at Penn State. The Nittany Lions are tough but beatable. The Illini had an impressive blowout against Michigan two weeks ago, but they followed that up with three straight losses. This one doesn't mean much if the Illini don't string some wins together. This was just a B-minus game against a weak opponent. The Illini must build off it.
What went right
Groce finally pulled the trigger on starting his freshman point guard -- and as we all expected -- it sparked the Illini. The move simply seems several games overdue. The offense always has looked better with Lucas over Jaylon Tate (and recently, Tracy Abrams) but his quickness and newfound comfort with the defense also makes him a slight improvement on that end too. Lucas finished a plus-21, while Tate was a minus-11.
Finke is on fire. He's shooting 61 percent from the field during Big Ten play, including 12-for-21 from three. He's confident, and Illinois needs to run more for him and toward him on offense.
Hill shut down Jok, who has battled a back injury. Still, in a battle of All-Big Ten players on bottom-half teams, Hill focused on shutting Jok down rather than simply out-scoring him.
The Illini had some of its best ball movement of the season. Good passes (hockey assists) led to more good passes and a lot of open jumpers. Less standing forces a defense to move. That's a good thing. Coleman-Lands especially shined in this aspect. He only forced one shot and didn't play as much hero ball.
The Illini looked connected on defense. They contested most shots at the rim and closed out well on Iowa threes. That said, Jok's limitations due to injury really hampered Iowa.
Jok was not himself due to a nagging back injury, and it was a huge break for Illinois. Jok was disengaged and obviously limited physically. He left a wide-open three about three feet short, lost a ball on the way up for a jump shot and mostly stood around the perimeter.
What went wrong
Groce's substitution patterns remain maddening. With a 10-0 lead and the team rolling at the 16:56 mark of the first half, Groce subbed out Lucas and Coleman-Lands for Abrams and Tate. Iowa scored four straight points, Abrams missed two shots and Tate had a bad turnover. Later in the half, Finke benched Finke after making two straight shots. Coaches often have a predetermined game plan for the rotation, but Groce seems too married to it. Sometimes, you should ride the hot hand(s).
Abrams continues to struggle from three, but at least he saw one go down. During Big Ten play, Abrams is now 13-for-55 shooting (23.1 percent) and 2-for-25 from three (8.0 percent). Hard to believe he made 26 of 38 threes to start the season. His second-half three ended a five-game streak without a three.
The Illini struggled to close this one out, mostly due to seven second-half turnovers.
Iowa had 16 offensive rebounds off of 41 misses. That's a bad defensive rebound percentage (39.0) for Illinois.
Illinois heads to Penn State, looking for its first road win of the season. The Nittany Lions (11-9, 3-4 Big Ten) have lost three straight, but those are to the three of top four teams in the Big Ten: Indiana (home), Purdue (road) and Wisconsin (road). But PSU has played well in the state of Pennsylvania during Big Ten play, beating Michigan State in Philadelphia and topping Minnesota at the Bryce Jordan Center and lost by three to Indiana at home. PSU plays some ugly offense, but like most Pat Chambers teams, they defend and are tough. They also have some good young talent in freshman point guard Tony Carr (11.4 points per game, 5.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists), freshman wing Lamar Stevens (11.4 points, 5.4 rebounds) and freshman post Mike Watkins (9.3 points, 7.9 rebounds). The Nittany Lions are probably a year away from NCAA Tournament contention, but they are a tough out -- especially for Illinois, which has lost five of its last seven games at University Park.