March 8, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS — It couldn’t have followed a better script, unless it occurred in the Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship game: hometown hero Matt Gatens sinks two free throws with 10 seconds remaining to seal the University of Iowa men’s basketball team’s 64-61 victory against Illinois on Thursday inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Iowa (17-15) ended a streak of five consecutive losses in the Big Ten Tournament; Illinois (17-15) lost for the first time ever in the first-round of the tournament.
Entering the game, the Hawkeyes set out to slow Illinois center Meyers Leonard and win the rebounding battle. Leonard finished with 18 points and six rebounds, but only eight of those points and two of the boards came in the final 20 minutes. Iowa out-rebounded the Illini, 39-35, for the game, and 27-17 in the second half.
“We kept fighting and it was a little bit of a struggle in the first half,” UI head coach Fran McCaffery said. “We didn’t get Leonard under control, but we did a much better job in the second half.”
Illinois held seven-point leads twice in the second half: 40-33 with 16:49 remaining, and 44-37 with 14:14 left. The Hawkeyes went on a 13-2 run and took the lead for good at 48-46 with 11:30 remaining when Aaron White tipped in a miss by Josh Oglesby. The Hawkeyes extended their run to 20-6 after Gatens sank a field goal from the left side of the lane to go up 57-50 with 9:19 to go.
Gatens scored a team-high 20 points, with 11 coming in the second half. He also displayed his usual defensive prowess.
“It continues to amaze me that (Gatens) has the energy to play defense that way and still get it done at the other end of the floor,” McCaffery said. “He’s phenomenal.”
Twelve of Iowa’s points came at the free throw line (12-of-19); Illinois did not attempt a free throw. Gatens was 4-of-4 from the line during the final 37 seconds.
“We had to make our free throws and we got the ball to Matt, which was good,” McCaffery said. “We executed our press offense most of the time; that was good.”
The final seven points for the Hawkeyes came from free throws. The last made field goal came from Gatens at the 9:19 mark.
Iowa shot 40.4 percent from the field (23-of-57), with six field goals coming from 3-point range. White scored 13 points with a game-high nine rebounds and three steals. He made 5-of-9 field goals, with two of those misses coming from long range. Point guard Bryce Cartwright handed out seven assists with just two turnovers in 33 minutes; Oglesby scored eight points with four rebounds in 17 minutes. Nine Hawkeyes played at least six minutes.
“The intensity level defensively in this game required us to play nine players and required us to get good play from all nine,” McCaffery said. “This is a real team victory.”
The last time Iowa won a game in the Big Ten Tournament (prior to Thursday) was against Ohio State, 67-60, to win the championships in 2006.
Gatens made 4-of-5 field goals in the first half for nine points, but Iowa trailed by four at halftime, 31-27. Illinois’ D.J. Richardson extended a one-point lead by sinking his third 3-point field goal as time expired in the first half. The Hawkeyes shot 44 percent from the field (11-of-25) with five steals.
The Hawkeyes turn around and play top-seeded Michigan State (24-7) on Friday at 11 a.m. (CT). Iowa dropped the regular-season meeting, 95-61, on Jan. 10 in East Lansing, Mich.
“You have to play the No. 1 seed if you’re going to get through this thing,” McCaffery said. “We played them well last year, not so much this year. We have to be a little bit better.”
The quarterfinal contest will be televised live by ESPN.