Iowa v Illinois Always Must See TV: 1987 was Tops

When Iowa and Illinois get together on the hardwood, it's must see TV. Iowa's 1987 win against Illinois in overtime is still one of the best memories that HN.com's Jon Miller has of following the Iowa Hawkeyes. And last night, Miller had a chance to watch the game on DVD for the first time since seeing it live on 1/14/87. He offers some thoughts on 'the good old days' of Big Ten basketball and about how amazing this game was.

Things are different when viewing them through the eye of a child's mind.

When we are children, things are bigger, longer, ‘neater', more dramatic, etc.

When I have remembered the 1987 Iowa-Illinois basketball game in Champaign, the 91-88 overtime thriller that went Iowa's way, I have always thought to myself that the game was the best game I ever saw.

Through the eye of a 15-year olds mind, I remembered Iowa being down by 22 points early in the second half. I remember sitting on the stairs to our basement, not being able to take any more of the carnage.

I don't think I was crying, but I cannot be sure; Iowa basketball was my first love and in our house, we took it very seriously.

I remember Tony Wysinger playing one of the best, if not the best games of his career. I remember Gerry Wright dribbling the ball out of bounds with less than a minute to go after Iowa had somehow tied the game.

I remember Iowa winning the game, but I was not sure how they had done it. I couldn't remember all of the details.

That's how it goes when you try to remember a game from 17 years ago as you approach 33 years of age.

Was it really the best Iowa game that I ever saw, or was my memory clouded by the fact that later in life, I would enjoy watching Iowa beat Illinois at anything?

1987 was before the Pearl/Thomas/Collins affair. It was just a classic Big Ten basketball game then played between two teams ranked in the top 10. Not that the rivalry was not hot, but it was no where near the simmering ‘hate' that exists now, in the rivalry sense of that word.

Last night, I was finally able to watch a replay of that game for the first time.

A good friend of mine sent me a DVD copy, and I thought that on the eve of this year's Iowa-Illinois game in Iowa City, it would be fitting to take a stroll down memory lane…

First, some observations that marked the time.

There were more than a few mullets on display in Assembly Hall that night. There were also some Pat Benetar wannabe's and way too many orange and blue long sleeve Oxford's. Those things were hideous.

The ‘Block I' at center court was about three feet tall, very subtle. Illinois had those permanent basket uprights in place way back from the baseline. Their student section had the Orange Crush t-shirts. Ted Hillary looked young. Lou Henson looked somewhat younger, but the ‘doo' was still there.

The shorts that the players wore were very bad. The shorts that the Illini male cheerleaders wore were worse. They looked like thongs compared to what we see today. I can't believe we wore those things?

The one great contribution made by Michigan's ‘Fab Five' were the baggier shorts. Thank you, Chris Webber.

The Assembly Hall was rocking on that night back in 1987. I have watched hundreds of Illinois basketball games on TV over the years, and I have always had a rival's respect for The Hall.

Maybe it was how the audio came through telecasts back then, but I don't recall The Hall being as crazy as it was on that night. I had forgotten how nutty it was.

Iowa came into this game 15-0 and ranked #2 in the nation. Illinois was 12-2 and was ranked #8.

Some of the Illini players that participated in this game: Jens Kujawa, Tony Wysinger, Kenny ‘The Snake' Norman, Glen Blackwell, Kendall Gill, Steve Bardo, Lowell Hamilton and Doug Altenberger.

For the Hawkeyes, it was the best Iowa team that I have ever seen: BJ Armstrong, Roy Marble, Ed Horton, Brad Lohaus, Gerry Wright, Kevin Gamble, Jeff Moe, Bill Jones and Al Lorenzen.

The game started out like a track meet. Wysinger was hitting everything in his sight, as was Altenberger. All of the players were skinny or thin. Even Ed Horton looked thinner than I remembered. Bill Jones was a rail.

Wysinger scored 19 first half points and missed just one shot. All of his points came from the floor. Altenberger had four three-point shots in the first half, including a dagger with :04 seconds remaining in the half as Illinois led 52-35.

Lohaus scored 19 of Iowa's first 37 points and was all over the court. He was hitting three's, getting offensive rebounds, and blocking shots the announcers of the game said that he was going to be in the NBA for sure. The play-by-play announcer on the Big Ten Television Network game was Wayne Larrivee.

Kenny Norman was one of the best jumpers of his day. In the first half, he took an outlet pass and had Ed Horton between he and the basket. Horton was down on the block, but Norman did not care. He just went up, over and through Horton and threw down an amazing dunk. I had forgotten just what a great athlete he was.

Gerry Wright played this game with his left (shooting) hand bandaged, as he had broken three fingers and dislocated two knuckles earlier in the year. It certainly affected him, but he was still a big contributor in this game.

Glen Blackwell was kept in check in this game, which was a solid feat by Iowa considering that he had scored 24 & 28 points in his previous two league games, respectively. Blackwell was also one of the best free throw shooters in the Big Ten and was riding a streak of 24-straight free throws made, a stat that would come into play later in the game.

Wysinger would hit a three and then Jens ‘Don't Call me Kareem' Kujawa would hit a sky hook to make it Illinois 61, Iowa 39 with 16:10 to go in the game.

I think I do remember being so mad that I was near tears when I watched this game live.

Again, Iowa basketball was about as big as it got for me back then. My friends would literally try to come to my house on Saturday nights to drag me away to school dances.

No chance, not when Iowa was playing basketball. If they were on TV, the world pretty much stopped for my family and me.

And I recall my world crashing down at that point of this game.

Then, it started. The comeback.

BJ hit a jumper to cut the lead to 20.

Then Kareem Kujawa missed an uncontested slam-dunk at the 15:35 mark.

I did not realize it at the time and at that age, but watching the game again last night, that miss was huge. Kujawa was a 7-footer who missed an easy slam. It rattled him and his teammates. Kujawa would miss his next five shots and Illinois went cold as a team, except for Wysinger, who was 12 of 13 from the floor at one point, establishing a new career high for points, going over 30 on that night.

Lorenzen hit a long two after that, and then Jeff Moe threw in one of many circus shots in the lane. The lead was down to 61-49 with 13:08 to play.

Iowa put Illinois in the bonus with 12:30 to go. Back then, there was no two shot double-bonus after 10 fouls. It was one and one to the end of the game.

Illinois would push their lead back to 14 points on three more occasions: once on a George Gervin-like finger roll from Norman and again on a long two by Wysinger.

A young Kendall Gill came into the game with about 12:00 minutes to go, noteworthy only because he was a rookie who would later become a great player.

Wysinger, the pride of Peoria Central High School, scored again to give Illinois a 69-55 lead with just over 10 remaining.

All the while, Iowa first-year head coach Tom Davis did not get mad. He never got mad. He was always encouraging his players.

The Hawkeyes would then mount another charge.

Jeff Moe tossed in a deep and contested three-point shot in front of the Iowa bench with eight minutes to go that cut the lead to 10. Doug Altenberger began to go very cold, as did his teammates as Illinois shot under 30-percent in the second half.

The lead was down to nine points with 6:10 to go.

Jeff Moe threw in a wild one-hander in the lane during this run, and Kenny Norman would put in a few baskets.

Gerry Wright would block a Tony Wysinger attempt and then was fouled. He made both free throws and with 4:23 to go, Iowa was down just 78-71. Things were getting crazy inside The Hall.

On the next Illinois possession, Iowa would get its first steal off of it's press on the night, and Lohaus drew the 4th foul on Altenberger. He would make both free throws, giving him 21 points and 11 boards at the time, and Iowa was down 78-73.

After another Altenberger miss, Gamble hit a four-foot baseline shot, pulling Iowa to within three points with 3:35 to go.

Roy Marble stole the inbounds pass and went in for the slam to make it 78-77 Illinois. A weary Marble then fouled Bardo, and things got a bit chippy on the court. The crowd was howling, but Bardo and Marble made up with one another.

Bardo would hit one of two free throws, and then Gerry Wright made a great drive from the right wing all the way to the rack for the scooper and the game was tied at 79 with 2:28 to play.

Norman hit another finger roll to push the Illini back on top, but it was Jeff Moe hitting yet another junk one hander in the land to tie it up again.

Marble would foul Bardo with 1:25 to go, but Bardo missed the front end. Lohaus got the rebound and was fouled, and he hit both of his free throws to tie the game at 81.

Iowa's defense held and Gerry Wright had the ball on the right baseline. While trying to spin with his hand bandaged, he lost the ball out of bounds. That is a play that I did not need the DVD to remember.

With :42 seconds to go, Gamble fouled Blackwell, the aforementioned great free throw shooter.

Blackwell missed the front end, snapping his streak of made free throws at 24. He still had not scored.

Iowa then set up ‘the wheel' and BJ Armstrong's drive and shot missed the mark, and the game was headed to overtime.

There is no way that this trip down memory lane can do the final five minutes of regulation any justice. It was frenetic, haphazard, delightful, frustrating and exhilarating.

Then came overtime.

Marble started the scoring by making one of two free throws. Horton grabbed the offensive board and was fouled, and he made one of two at the line. The foul was significant, as Peoria native Doug Altenberger would foul out of the contest early in OT.

With Iowa up two, Tony Wysinger came down and nailed a three. What a game for Tony. Illinois was up 84-83 with 3:48 to go in OT.

Iowa would miss its next shot, and Illinois had a three on one fast break with Wysinger with the ball in the middle and Norman and Blackwell flanking him. BJ Armstrong was back on defense. It was not looking good for Iowa.

But Wysinger would make a critical mistake: instead of coming to a jump stop and dishing to Norman for the slam, he went up as if to shoot, dropped the pass to Norman who slammed it, but Wysinger came crashing into Armstrong.

It was ruled a charge.

BJ was pretty far under the rim and Wysinger was a bit out of control. If it would have been a no call, it would not have been a bad call. But that was a huge, huge play for Iowa, and a major gaffe by Wysinger.

BJ would hit both free throws, putting Iowa up one with 3:26 to go.

Hamilton would miss, Horton would get called for three seconds, Horton got a steal and Marble traveled to get the game to the 2:20 mark. Blackwell would then score his one and only field goal of the night, once again giving Illinois the lead at 86-85 with 2:15 to play.

Horton would commit another turnover (Iowa had nearly 20 on the game) and Moe would commit a ill-advised foul that sent Blackwell back to the line.

Remember, a near 90-percent free throw shooter, with Illinois up one, at the line for the one and one.

He missed it again.

Iowa got the rebound and called timeout with 1:29 to go.

On the inbounds play, Blackwell fouled Gamble. Not good.

But Gamble could not make Illinois pay, missing the front end. Illinois came down and Gamble blocked Wysinger's shot and Iowa scored on a run out lay in by Roy Marble, going up 87-86.

But Norman would answer back, putting Illinois back up by one with 32 seconds to go.

BJ Armstrong then hit a stone cold long two pointer with :21 seconds to go and Iowa was up 89-88.

With the final seconds ticking away, Wysinger tried another post feed to Norman, but Kevin Gamble deflected the pass and Lohaus scooped it up and was fouled with seven seconds to go.

Illinois had two timeouts prior to that exchange, but chose to not call one.

They used one to ice Lohaus, but it did not work as he made them both. Illinois in bounded the ball and got it across mid court in two seconds, and called another timeout.

Norman got an OK look at a three, but he missed the mark.

Iowa's players and coaches ran wild on the court. The Illinois fans booed. I am not sure if they were booing that scene or the fact that their team surrendered a 22-point lead with about 16 minutes to go.

So, there I sat late last night, having watched that game again, 17 years later.

There have been several great moments on the hardwood for Iowa during my lifetime, several great comebacks, big wins, etc.

But to me, this game is my favorite. It was hard fought by both teams with so many great players on the court. The Illinois crowd was everything you want your crowd to be. Players came up big, there were clear moments of momentum swings, there was overtime.

Iowa would be ranked #1 in the nation the next week and would ultimately get to 18-0 that year before Ohio State tripped them up.

Iowa finished that season 30-5, losing to UNLV in the Elite Eight. Iowa surrendered it's own huge lead in that game, but I will not go there. I will never watch that game again for as long as I live.

When Iowa and Illinois face off tonight, the players who now wear those uniforms were just toddler's back in 1987. But the intensity will still be there. Just like it was when Les Jepsen and Wade Lookingbill hit game winners against Illinois over the years, the way it was when Andy Kaufmann's three-pointer went in after time was put back on the clock and after Iowa was given a basket after a ball bounced off of Deon Thomas' shoulder and into the Iowa goal moments earlier. The way that it was when Jerry Hester went wild in Iowa City several years ago.

When Iowa and Illinois play one another in anything, it causes the best and worst in the fan bases to come out.

But watching that game made me think, more than anything else, that the Big Ten was once a run and gun league with some very, very good basketball players and coaches. 1984-1991 was, to me, the peak of Big Ten ball in my lifetime.

Perhaps it was more the style of play back then compared to now. The same can be said of the NBA. The goonery of Chuck Daly's Pistons and Pat Riley's Knicks and Heat filtered down into the college game.

I still love college basketball and the Big Ten, but I wonder if the game that I fell for back in 1980's will ever come back.

But at least I have the memories, and the DVD's.

Here is to a well played and hard fought game. This series deserves that.


Hawkeye Insider Top Stories