March 8, 2014
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By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jon Ekey’s 3-pointer with five-10ths of a second remaining lifted Illinois to a 66-63 victory over the No. 24/25 University of Iowa men’s basketball team on Saturday night on Mediacom Court inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The loss is the Hawkeyes’ fifth in the last six games and drops the team’s record to 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. Illinois improves to 18-13 overall and 7-11 in league play.
“We’re not playing how we’re capable of, playing uncharacteristic of what we did at the beginning of the year,” said junior Aaron White, who paced the Hawkeyes with 12 points and eight rebounds. “We’re unable to get necessary stops, not executing down the stretch and not coming out ready to play. We have to get it turned around quick.”
With the game tied at 59 with 4:22 left, the Fighting Illini took a 60-59 lead on a free throw by Nnanna Egwu before Ekey drained a 3-pointer on the following Illinois possession to make the score 63-59 lead with 3:03 remaining.
Senior Roy Devyn Marble cut the lead to 63-61 with a driving layup with 1:09 to play, and Iowa’s full-court pressure forced the Illini to burn their final two timeouts before sophomore Mike Gesell’s steal led to a layup by junior Gabriel Olaseni to tie the game at 63 with 40 seconds left.
With an eight-second differential between the shot and game clock, Gesell was whistled for a foul near mid-court when trying to draw a five-second count on Illinois guard Tracy Abrams. With 13 seconds left, Abrams started to make his move before finding Ekey, who drained the game-winning 3-pointer from the left wing to send the Illini to their 18th victory.
“We were going to switch it, and Abrams decided not to take the ball screen,” said White. “Mike stayed in front of Abrams, I was in the gap, and he kicked it to Ekey. I recovered, and he made a tough shot.”
“You’ve got to give it to the kid, but you can’t get the shot off there,” said UI head coach Fran McCaffery. “You have to make Abrams make a tough two.”
Iowa shot 44.4 percent (24-of-54) from the floor and 6-of-17 (35.3 percent) from 3-point range in the game. The Hawkeyes committed just eight turnovers, but lost the rebounding battle, 34-29.
Along with White, two other Iowa players reached double figures. Sophomore Adam Woodbury finished with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, while Gesell scored 11 points with five assists (zero turnovers) and four rebounds. Marble finished with eight points — his first Big Ten game in single digits.
The Illini made 25-of-54 field goal attempts to shoot 46.3 percent from the floor, including seven 3-pointers. Illinois had four players reach double figures with guard Rayvonte Rice leading the team with 15 points on 7-of-16 shooting.
Illinois got off to a quick start, jumping out to leads of 10-1, 15-4 and 20-6 over the first six minutes. The Fighting Illini made eight of their first 11 shots, which included three 3-pointers.
“That’s where the game was lost,” said McCaffery of Illinois’ start. “You’re in a situation where you’re at home; you can’t get down 20-6. We played unbelievable defense from that point to the end of the half, but that was the only good defense we played.”
Once Iowa shook off its sluggish start, it responded with a 24-4 run to take a 30-25 lead into the final media timeout of the first half. Senior Zach McCabe opened the spurt with a 3-pointer, senior Melsahn Basabe followed with a layup and Marble made a running floater to cut the deficit to 20-13 with 11:42 remaining.
Iowa fought back to tie the game at 21 on a pair of White free throws before a jumper by Gesell gave the Hawkeyes a 23-21 advantage — their first lead of the game. Woodbury scored the final five points, including a dunk to give Iowa the 30-25 advantage.
“We essentially have a 20-point run on them because we go down 15 to up five, but (the start) changes everything,” said McCaffery. “We were never able to get any separation because we were constantly working. We did a good job turning the ball over, we only had eight, but a couple of were very costly.”
After trailing 34-29 at the half, Illinois drained a pair of 3-pointers on its first two possessions of the second half to take a 36-35 lead, setting up a back-and-forth second half.
Iowa took a 45-41 lead courtesy of a Josh Oglesby 3-pointer with 15:04 left and stretched the advantage to 54-48 with 11:17 to play. The Illini scored the next 11 points to turn a five-point deficit into a 59-54 lead with 6:11 to play.
Iowa will return to action Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis as either the No. 5 or No. 6 seed.
“The only way to go is up,” said White. “Right now we’re in a bad stretch. We have a little break before the Big Ten Tournament to regroup.”