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The Iowa senior was hard on himself after a 70-66 loss to Illinois.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Everyone seems to want more from Peter Jok.

The Iowa senior is secure in standing at the front of the line on that topic.

After leading the Hawkeyes in points (16), rebounds (10) and assists (four) in Saturday’s 70-66 home loss to Illinois, the Big Ten Conference’s leading scorer was tough on himself.

He was disappointed in some of the plays that also helped him lead the team in turnovers (five).

“We’ve got to execute down the stretch, and I don’t think we did as a team,” Jok said. “Me as a leader, I don’t think I was a great leader down the stretch. Especially my turnover (when Iowa trailed 58-56), which led to two points for them.

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The Hawkeyes were swept by the Fighting Illini this season.

“I was really mad about myself down the stretch."

Jok came into this season as the undisputed team leader. As the only senior contributor on a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores, his importance was always going to be amplified.

But there’s a percentage of fans that show up in my social-media feed, on message boards and even in conversation that think this team would be better without him.

And that’s just silly.

The critics point to Iowa going 2-0 when Jok was sidelined with a back injury. But the real reason Iowa went 2-0 is because other players stepped up and made shots without him. Just as they need to do with him.

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John Groce challenged his seniors this week, and it paid off Saturday.

Jok is the most important player on this team. Despite playing less than 100 percent, his presence draws double teams. He hits more than 90 percent of his free throws. He leads the team in rebounds. He’s second in assists. He is the only Hawkeye capable of carrying this team on his back, as he did to force overtime at Minnesota last week.

Jok tried to get his teammates involved Saturday; he attempted only eight shots, second-fewest of the season.

He made mistakes Saturday; everyone did.

Better analysis is the simplest analysis: When Jok and his teammates are hitting shots, this is a tough Hawkeye team to beat.

When they’re not, Iowa is quite beatable.

That showed Saturday. The Hawkeyes shot 31 percent in the second half, including 4-for-15 (26 percent) from 3-point range despite having several open looks from good shooters in Jok, Brady Ellingson and Nicholas Baer.

They were open. They missed.

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The freshman forward could only watch as another game slipped away late against Illinois

Cold shooting plagued the Hawkeyes in their previous loss, too, a winnable chance at Michigan State that they led at halftime. The Hawkeyes withered that night under 4-for-21 shooting from 3-point land.

When you’re allowing more points a game than any other Big Ten team and you’re not hitting outside shots, that’s a rotten recipe for success.

Is it freshman legs giving out? Maybe that’s part of it. The grind of a college basketball season takes a toll on everybody physically, especially those that have never done it.

But it’s upstairs where Iowa lost its edge Saturday – and that’s not me saying it, that’s what head coach Fran McCaffery told his team after the game.

“He said we were playing not to lose, that we overthought stuff and overdid stuff,” Jok said. “Playing too fast, not playing at our own pace. Down the stretch, I thought we tried to play too fast as a group and not slow the ball down with our offense, including me.”

Defensive lapses were part of it. The team was instructed to press off made baskets to open the game, and some players forgot. When the press was activated (and it worked at times, contributing to 17 Illini turnovers), Illinois wound up with wide-open layups or 3-pointers.

The Illini shot 55 percent in the second half.

“You know, it usually comes down to a mistake or two,” McCaffery said. “Who makes a mistake, who overcomes a mistake. And like I said, we did so many good things, and we did some things that obviously weren't so good, and they capitalized on those, and you have to give them credit for that.”

Perhaps the Hawkeyes were playing too tight, tensing up in front of their first home sellout crowd of the season clad in Kenny Arnold-supporting white.

The story was different for the guys wearing orange. John Groce’s team has been shaky most of the season, but after having zero road wins all season the Illini now have back-to-back road wins at Northwestern and at Iowa.

“I thought our mental toughness today and our physical toughness were really good,” Groce said. “I was on our seniors about that a lot this week.”

So, now what?

There’s not much positive to say about a three-game losing streak, about coming off a bye to getting picked off by an Illinois team that is 2-0 against Iowa and 3-9 against the rest of the Big Ten.

If things don’t change quickly, this will mark the third time in four years that McCaffery’s Hawkeyes (14-13 overall, 6-8 Big Ten) will have faded down the regular-season stretch.

The key now: Don’t get down, don’t overthink going into Tuesday’s 8 p.m. game against another mercurial opponent in Indiana (15-12, 5-9).

“You never want to spend much time thinking about a loss,” freshman forward Tyler Cook said. “I think this turnaround will be good for us.”

Unless Iowa pulls a stunner and runs the table at the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C., this team isn’t going to the NCAA Tournament.

After Saturday’s loss, the pressure’s certainly off.

“Season’s not over yet,” Jok said. “We’ve just got to keep fighting.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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