INDIANAPOLIS — One-and-done. Again at the Big Ten Conference Tournament, and suddenly for Iowa's once-magical basketball season.
The 18th-ranked Hawkeyes suffered a Thursday stunner at this event for the third straight year, their late charge coming up short in a 68-66 loss to 12th-seeded Illinois at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
All that's left to reverse this growing pile of disappointment is the NCAA Tournament that lies ahead.
“Obviously it’s disappointing," Iowa guard Mike Gesell said, "but it’s far from over. We’ve got another tournament to win."
The Hawkeye guard speaks after a 68-66 loss to Illinois. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
While Gesell's comments showed life, the Hawkeye locker room understandably didn't have much after this one. Jarrod Uthoff, who scored 21 points, said he was angry.
And as Gesell noted, there's urgency ahead. But, inexplicably with a veteran group that's been in this situation before, that type of tournament urgency was missing Thursday as Illinois (15-18) raced to an 11-4 lead.
"When you're a senior, I think you should realize that tournament play is different. It just is," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "And you’ve got to be ready."
Illinois, like double-digit seeds Penn State (2015) and Northwestern (2014) at this event against Iowa, was hungrier and looser.
“I feel like those three teams played like they had nothing to lose," Uthoff said. "I felt like we played with something to lose, especially this year.”
Iowa fell to Illinois to open the Big Ten tournament. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
It's difficult to make sense of it. Just a month ago, the Hawkeyes were the Big Ten front-runners after dominating the most difficult part of their schedule. They were in first place at 7-0 and 10-1 and even 11-2, but now they’ve lost five of six games and the team’s track is frustratingly similar to the 2013-14 group that collapsed with losses in seven of their last eight.
Illinois twisted the knife during that 2014 nosedive when Jon Ekey's 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left stunned Iowa in the regular-season finale. And the Illini did it again Thursday.
After Iowa erased the 11-point deficit it faced with 3:33 left, Illini guard Malcolm Hill came up big. He buried a jumper over Uthoff with 1:16 remaining to break a 66-66 tie, and the Hawkeyes came up empty on their next two possessions.
Gesell badly missed a jumper from the free-throw lane with 50 seconds left. Iowa got a stop and had a chance to tie or win, but Gesell threw an in-bounds pass away with four seconds left.
Much like the end of the Ohio State loss Feb. 28, the Hawkeyes couldn't get their all-America forward, Uthoff, a late shot attempt.
While specifics of the play weren't offered, Uthoff said the ball just didn't make it to him.
"We had play drawn up," Gesell said. "We were just trying to get a shot and get a good look at it. And the disappointing part was we didn't even get one."
Peter Jok led Iowa with 29 points but fouled out with 4:02 remaining on a double-technical foul after he and Kendrick Nunn shoved each other.
The Iowa junior had 29 points before fouling out vs. Illinois. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
But even without Jok, Iowa scored 11 points in 98 seconds to rally from a 66-55 deficit and tie it on Nicholas Baer's 3-point play with 1:40 left.
“We didn’t do the things necessary throughout the course of the game to win, in my opinion," McCaffery said. "What I was proud of was the fight that they showed to come back and tie the game. Because it certainly didn’t look like we were going to tie the game.”
Now 21-10 Iowa, which was once 19-4, must wait for Selection Sunday to learn their NCAA Tournament path — probably earning a seed in the No. 6 to 8 range, after its most damaging loss of the season to a team with an RPI of 155. That's far from the projected No. 1 that was in front of Iowa's name in early February.
So now, it's the ultimate one and done. And as Adam Woodbury (10 rebounds) said, "Time to get ready for the NCAA Tournament.”
Fran McCaffery tells media that Iowa's final out-of-bounds play in loss against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament is "none of your business. Period." Clark Wade/Indianapolis Star