IOWA CITY, Iowa - Ten days ago when things appeared stormy in Hawkeye Land, Aaron White promised it would pass. Iowa's senior captain refused to allow he and his teammates to be negative after a pair of unlikely losses to Minnesota and Northwestern.
While the cloud hovered over the heads of outsiders who watched the team collapse last year, White wouldn't let it to linger inside the locker room. His belief in brighter days spilled over onto his teammates.
Junior Mike Gesell smiled Wednesday night here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena thinking back to White's demeanor last week. The Hawkeyes had just won their third Big Ten game in a row for the first time this season, dispatching of rival Illinois, 68-60.
"It starts with leadership and he's definitely the leader on this team," Gesell said. "When he's staying positive like that, it kind of trickles down into everybody. That's what you need out of a leader. He's a great guy to play with and he's a teammate that you want to have."
White netted a career-high 29 points Wednesday, scoring 14 in a row during a key stretch of the second half. The Ohio native added nine rebounds, two steals and the intangibles necessary to win a hard-fought, physical Big Ten battle.
"Quite honestly, he's probably the reason we won this game; not just the points he was scoring but his leadership he brings, picking guys up in timeouts, telling guys where to go. He really showed his leadership and his growth as a player. He was tremendous tonight," Gesell said.
Illini Coach John Groce began his post-game press conference with praise for Iowa's leader.
"There are a lot of thoughts I have about tonight's game, but I'll start out by saying that I thought Aaron White was spectacular. He played like a senior is supposed to play this time of year. He was terrific when they needed him. He came up with big buckets, rebounds and played with inspiring effort. I thought he was hands down the best player in the game, and it wasn't even close," Groce said.
White suffered through one of his worst games as a Hawkeye two Sundays ago in an overtime loss at Northwestern. He missed 11 of 12 shots from the floor and vowed to not let that happen again. True to his word, he's averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in the three contests since then.
Wednesday, a premonition hit White before the action
"I kind of had this weird feeling before the game that something special was going to happen for myself and my team," he said. "Sure enough it did. I was just in a zone there (during the 14 points in a row). You can't hold anything back."
After connecting on just nine of his first 39 three-point attempts this season, White has knocked down five of six shots from behind the arc during the last two games. He hit three of four Wednesday.
"It changes everything for us because now it spreads the defense even more because they're worrying about him and (Jarrod) Uthoff and Pete (Jok), if he's in the game," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "It allows our drivers to drive and our big guys to post."
After White, the Hawkeyes (18-10 overall, 9-6 Big Ten) received offensive contributions throughout the rotation. Back-up Center Gabe Olaseni scored eight points while Uthoff, Jok, Josh Oglesby and Anthony Clemmons chipped in with six apiece.
Uthoff pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds to go with four blocked shots and two assists. Starting Center Adam Woodbury totaled nine boards.
Iowa clung to a 33-32 lead at the break. In a rough first half, the Hawkeyes turned the ball over eight times and Illinois (17-11, 7-8) committed 12 personal fouls.
Iowa was the team that cleaned up things best after the intermission, committing just four turnovers and forcing seven. Its full-court pressure bothered the visitors, who seemed rushed when they did get it across mid-court.
The Illini sank just 7 of 28 (25 percent) field goal attempts in the second half.
"We contested. We didn't put them on the free throw line a ton (15-16). They're No. 1 in the country in free throw percentage. So you put them on the free throw line 30 times and you're going to have a hard time winning," McCaffery said.
Illinois held a 43-42 lead with 14:14 to play in the game. The Hawkeyes then grabbed control of things with a 16-5 run during the next eight minutes.
The Illini trimmed their deficit to five late when Iowa missed a series of free throws. White stepped up and sealed the deal with four consecutive foul shots in the closing minute.
The Hawkeyes had won back to back games in the Big Ten on three separate occasions this season. Pushing it to three in a row for the first time was significant.
"We really talked about that coming into this game. We couldn't quite get over that hump. It was a big one for us and now we're just taking it one game at a time. We have another challenge, another road test this weekend (Saturday at Penn State). It's going to be another fun one and it starts in practice (Thursday)," Gesell said.