Illinois 70, Iowa 66
Even with the ultimate goal seeming unreachable, the Illini showed on Saturday that they're not giving up on the season -- closing out a 70-66 win on the road at Iowa.
Illinois (15-12) improved to 5-9 in Big Ten play, and they have won back-to-back Big Ten road games for just the second time since March 2014.
The Hawkeyes had a rough time scoring baskets in the second half, which deserved at least a tip of the cap to the Illinois defense. Iowa went more than 12 minutes with just two made buckets, as the Illini led 60-56 with 3:31 left.
Jordan Bohannon and Brady Ellingson both hit shots after that to give Iowa a 61-60 advantage with only 2:38 left. But Malcolm Hill got to the hoop for a lay-in on the next possession. And soon after that, Jalen Coleman-Lands hit what was the dagger three with 1:32 to go to make it 65-61 Illini.
Iowa did not make another basket until Peter Jok hit a three with less than two seconds to go. It was too little, too late at that point though.
The Illini were led by Hill, who totaled a team-high 21 points and eight rebounds. Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke and Te'Jon Lucas all provided 12 a piece as well. Illinois shot 47.4 percent from the field, and 55.2 percent in the second half.
Iowa shot just 38.9 percent, and they hit just 31.3 percent of their shots in the second half. Jok finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Tyler Cook had 14 points, and Bohannon added 11 too.
It was a game that saw long stretches without made buckets on both sides. But the Illini were able to outlast a team that was 5-1 at home in Big Ten play entering this game.
What it means
During a season that most would like to forget, Illinois is still good enough to sweep Iowa -- beating them twice in one season for the first time since 2010-11. The Illini have won back-to-back road games in the Big Ten. Now, they get another shot at winning back-to-back Big Ten regular season games. They have played 33 of those since the last time they won two in a row. And accomplishing that would mean sweeping Northwestern. Illinois still has a chance to move out of the Wednesday window of the Big Ten tournament, as they join Nebraska, Indiana and Ohio State as five-win teams in the conference.
What went right
Illinois made more plays down the stretch. Coleman-Lands got off to a terrible start from the field. But he hit big shots. He also came up with a steal on Iowa's last chance with the game within one possession. Hill made timely plays, while rather quietly carrying the Illini along. And Finke knocked down some important shots. Illinois also got stops, and did not give up easy ones when the game was in the balance.
Lucas keeps growing. The freshman point guard will make mistakes. He had four turnovers, including two on consecutive possessions in the second half against the press. He also missed some free throws late that could have hurt. But he makes plays. Lucas finished with 12 points, as he scored in double figures for the third straight game -- going 4-of-5 from the field. He added two assists and got a big block late. He was +14 in his 33 minutes on the court, which was the best margin of anyone in the game.
Finke stays strong. The hair game continues to flow for the Champaign native, and so does his shot. Finke hit big threes in the win at Northwestern. He had eight points and five boards against Penn State. And on Saturday, he played one of his best games in Big Ten play. Not only did he knock down shots, which he has done more efficiently than any three-point shooter in conference games. But he also had five assists.
Iowa's turnovers. The Hawkeyes shot 50 percent in the first half. But they went into the locker room with just 29 points and a four-point lead. That was in large part due to their 11 giveaways in the first half. It felt like their lead should have been significantly higher at the end of the first half.
What went wrong
Missed free throws. Lucas missed three of five free throws in the final 34 seconds, which could have been costly.
The card. Illinois was on a 7-0 run early in the first half. Hill had five straight points. But Groce took him out, and of course, the offense stalled. The Illini went six minutes without a point. Momentum was stopped because of the predetermined substitution plan.
Jaylon Tate played. For whatever reason, Groce's sub plan included Tate -- who sat the previous two games. The senior point guard was -10 in seven minutes of action. He traveled in full-court pressure. Later, he got a 10-second call. All that he recorded in the stat book were two turnovers and two fouls.
Leron Black's frustrating slide continued. He had just three rebounds in 29 minutes combined all of last week. On Saturday, he had four fouls in just eight minutes. Although, he had three rebounds during that time.
Maverick Morgan playing soft. Morgan's stats don't look bad at all. He had six points, seven rebounds and two blocks. But ever since he got swatted early on in the Penn State game, some confidence and toughness seem to be missing from his game. He turned it over twice. He got bodied up by Cook multiple times too.
Illinois dealing with pressure. Groce assured everyone that his team has been working on press offense since August. It still doesn't look like it. Lucas gave it away twice in a row against the press. With that, it went from a two-point Illini lead to an Iowa lead. The Illini do not look comfortable or composed against pressure beyond the halfcourt line.
Illinois will host Northwestern (19-7, 8-5) on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. CT. The Illini won in Evanston 68-61 on Feb. 7. But the Wildcats followed that up with a win at Wisconsin. Chris Collins' squad is top-five in the Big Ten standings, and baring a collapse, they will be destined for the dance for the first time in program history.