The Illini went on a 24-5 run over a 7 minute stretch in the second, punctuated by 2 dunks from Shaun Pruitt and one from Warren Carter, to turn a six-point deficit into a 13 point lead, and held off a late surge by the Hawkeyes in the waning moments of the game. Iowa closed the lead to 1 point with 32 seconds left on back to back three pointers by Adam Haluska and Tony Freeman over the span of 5 seconds, but a pair of free throws by Trent Meacham and one by Brian Randle iced the game for Illinois.
"The pizza will taste better tonight," said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "It's been a difficult stretch, very mentally draining. It hasn't been a lot of fun, but this was a good team win. We grew up a little bit as a team." "We think every game is the most important game, but this was a huge win for us," added Rich McBride.
The game featured the resurgence of Illinois forward Brian Randle, who has battled injuries the entire season. Randle was 7-9 from the field, including two of his signature highlight reel dunks, and added 6 rebounds and 6 assists, as well as playing strong defense on Iowa's star freshman Tyler Smith, who was held to 12 points on 4-12 shooting. Randle looked like the player that Illinois fans have been expecting to see all season, and his seeming return to health provided a spark that the Illinois team needed.
"I felt good. I think I've been putting a little too much pressure on myself," said Randle. "I've been letting these guys down, and tonight was my breakout game. I think this game gives me a bar to set myself to, in terms of my physical play and my emotional play." "When he drives like that, then he dishes, that makes a big difference," added Weber. "He was much more active.
Illinois came out with a different starting lineup, due to injuries to starting point guard Chester Frazier (groin) and Jamar Smith (ankle). Sophomore transfer Trent Meacham started at the point, and senior guard Rich McBride, who has been struggling with his shooting for the past 4 games, started in Smith's place. The decision to start McBride paid immediate dividends, as McBride hit 3 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes, and Illinois raced out to an 11 point lead.
"I started him, and a lot of people probably wondered why, ‘What the hell's wrong with Weber, he hasn't made a shot, he shows no emotion.'" said Weber. "I wanted to give a shot of confidence and energy to Rich. I didn't tell him until the second time in before the game. I've been telling him ‘You're a senior, you're a good player, you've been there, you've made shots. Now play like it.' I guess it worked."
Iowa went on a 24-11 run to erase the Illinois lead, as the Illini went cold from the field, struggling with Iowa's zone defense, and Haluska got hot, hitting a pair of 3's and making 5-5 shots from the free throw line. A dunk by Brian Carlwell with 20 seconds left in the half gave Illinois a one point lead, but Justin Johnson hit a long three pointer with 3 seconds left to give Iowa a 2 point lead at the break, 31-29.
Randle had 11 on 5-6 shooting in the first half to lead the team, and McBride added 9 on the early three pointers. The Illini shot a respectable 42% for the half, but struggled from behind the arc, hitting only 4 of 15 attempts. Smith's ankle may have hampered his stroke, as he missed both of his attempts, and Trent Meacham also struggled from the field, going 0-4 from the field. The Hawkeyes were led at the half by Haluska's 13 points and Johnson's 8, and Iowa was hot from behind the arc for the half, hitting 50% of their 8 attempts.
Iowa stretched the lead to 6 early in the second half before Illinois went on their run. Iowa switched out of their zone defense and went to man to man, Illinois started pounding the ball inside, and Randle started driving through the defense at will and dishing for open looks for Pruitt and Warren Carter, who hit a pair of threes from either baseline to stretch the Illinois lead to 8. Another Randle assist led to a Pruitt dunk, then Jamar Smith hit Warren Carter in transition for an alley hoop the brought the sold-out Assembly Hall crowd to it's feet, and stretched the lead to 13. The crowd was quieted somewhat when Smith was hit with a technical foul for taunting as he played defense on Iowa's next possession. "They said Jamar was taunting, and that both benches had been warned," said Weber. "I never heard a warning." Haluska made the technical free throws, but the Illini got the points right back on the ensuing possession as Randle again drove the lane and fed off to Pruitt for another dunk.
"We were in the same situation we've been in four other times," said Weber. "One point lead in the second half, 46-45. At the timeout, I said ‘Guys, we've been here. This is déjà vu. Are we going to finish it this time?' Don't foul, get stops, make plays on the other end, and we did it." "It was just a bad run," said Iowa head coach Steve Alford. "We turned the ball over a lot in that stretch. We called a couple of timeouts to try to kill it, but they got their points off turnovers. When you have them in bunches like that, it's hard to overcome."
Illinois has a 13 point lead with less than 4 minutes to go when Iowa made their last run. A jumper by Seth Gorney brought the Hawks to within 6, but McBride answered with his 4th 3 pointer of the game to stretch the lead back out to 9 with just under a minute left. Haluska was fouled on a layup by Carter, and missed his only free throw of the night in 13 attempts. However, the rebound bounced off of Smith and out of bounds, and Tony Freeman hit a three to close the lead to 4 with 37 seconds left. Jamar Smith was trapped in the corner on the inbounds play, and turned the ball over. Haluska hit another three with 32 seconds left to make the score 71-70 before the Illini closed the game out from the free throw line.
"I wish it hadn't gotten that close," said Weber. "We've got to play smarter at the end. We gave them too many free throws. We can't give them the chances. A lot of things went against us, and I was thinking ‘This can't be.' But we made a couple of plays at the end, and Trent hit those free throws."
The Illini had four players score in double digits. Carter, Randle, and Pruitt each had 16 points, and McBride added 15. Randle led the team with 6 rebounds, and his 6 assists also led. Iowa was led by Haluska's 25, Smith added 12, and Johnson has 11. Smith had 7 rebounds to lead the Hawkeyes.
Illinois outrebounded Iowa 33-28, and forced the Hawks into 16 turnovers. Illinois recorded 34 points in the paint, taking advantage of Iowa foul trouble and the fact that Iowa's big men are not particularly physical.
Illinois now faces the daunting task of taking on Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans at the Breslin Center. MSU is also struggling in league play at 0-2, and their backs are up against the wall just as the Illini's were tonight. The game is Sunday at 12:30 CST, and will be nationally televised by CBS.