IOWA CITY, Iowa — A “clicking” Illinois squad handed Iowa its sixth Big Ten Conference loss of the season, 78-59, Wednesday night before 14,493 inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
In a game featuring the first- and second-best teams in the league for scoring offenses, the matchup came down to defense and rebounding. And the Fighting Illini, now on a seven-game winning streak, rose to the challenge.
No. 23 Illinois out-rebounded the Hawkeyes 38-25 overall, the totals being 24-12 at halftime. The Illini also held Iowa to 39.6 percent from the field and 31.6 percent for 3-pointers. Illinois shot 58.5 percent from the field as a team, grabbing 14 points off of second chances.
“(That) is well below what we’d like to shoot,” sophomore point guard Jeff Horner said. “They stayed in us the whole game, so (Illinois’ defense) really hasn’t changed that much but the first game we got some easy baskets and this game we didn’t get down with any easy baskets.”
Horner had a game-high 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting in 40 minutes. Fellow North Iowan Greg Brunner went 5-of-12 from the field for 18 points. Pierre Pierce, an Illinois native, added 10 in another 40-minute performance.
The Illini’s Dee Brown, a sophomore guard, led his team with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting. He also had seven rebounds, nearly four above his season average. Junior Luther Head had a game-high 10 rebounds, nearly six above his season average per game, and 16 points. Illinois had four players in double digits.
“I thought Dee Brown and Deron Williams just played outstanding all-around games,” said Horner, mentioned Williams, a guard, who went 5-of-10 for 13 points. “They’re a very good team that shot very well tonight, but our defense was absolutely terrible, I thought.”
“That was a pretty good basketball team we played tonight,” Iowa coach Steve Alford said. “I’ve seen them on tape from their last eight or nine games, and they’ve been playing well, but I don’t know if they’ve played any better than that.
“They clicked at both ends, and we didn’t shoot the ball very well. We have to learn to have a bad shooting night and still play well defensively.”
The Hawkeyes (14-10 overall, 7-6 Big Ten) had an uphill battle going into Wednesday’s game. A win could have started a streak leading, with luck, to a Big Ten Championship. However, the loss puts the team in a three-way tie for fourth place in conference standings with Purdue and Northwestern.
Illinois, on the other hand, needed the win to keep up with Michigan State in the championship race. MSU won at in-state rival Michigan on Tuesday night to stand alone in first place with an 11-3 league record. Illinois (19-5, 10-3) is alone in second.
“(MSU) had a big road win yesterday, so we had to have a big road win tonight to let them know that we’re still here fighting for what they’re fighting for,” said Brown, who had a game-high 10 assists with one turnover in 37 minutes.
“I think both teams were understanding of the task at hand,” Alford said. “I just think it was a little more difficult at our end. I thought our guys gave great effort again, but I think it was just frustrating from about the end of the (first) half on.”
“Tonight, you have to give (Illinois) a lot of credit and they just took us right out of our game,” said Horner, echoing his coach’s earlier comments. “They got a lot of offensive rebounds and they out-rebounded us big time and that’s something you just can’t have with how small we are.”
“This was a game where we had to be at the top of ours to beat them,” Pierce said, “and today wasn’t the day for us. Illinois did a great job offensively and defensively executing, but we couldn’t get stops and they killed us on the boards. The emphasis is now on Saturday.”
According to Pierce and Brunner, the Hawkeyes need to win their final three games, starting with Minnesota on Saturday, the last-place team in conference standings.
“From our viewpoint, we have to win every game from here on out and it starts on Saturday,” said Pierce.
“I think we have a very good chance (at the NCAA tournament) if we win out the rest of the games and just play hard,” said Brunner. “If we can accomplish that, then I think we’ll be real good.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com