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IOWA CITY, Ia. The intensity level was turned on high Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

That was obvious in the game's first few minutes, when coaches Fran McCaffery of Iowa and John Groce of Illinois got into a shouting match. They weren't making dinner plans. They were spewing intensity, jaws clenched and faces red.

"There was just a feel that this game was big," Iowa's Aaron White said after his career night led Iowa to a 68-60 victory.

This was a Big Ten donnybrook. A game with major NCAA Tournament implications. A game that Iowa needed, and got. A game that felt bigger than usual?

"I don't know," McCaffery said. "Ask my players."

So I did. The answer was a resounding yes.

"I know Iowa doesn't like Illinois, and Illinois doesn't like Iowa," White said. "There was a feel that both teams wanted it so bad. Both teams came out and punched each other in the mouth. It was just a battle. That's what we were expecting. That's what we got."

Iowa's toughness, questioned several times this season, was not an issue Wednesday. In fact, Iowa was the tougher team down the stretch. And no one was tougher than White. He scored a career-high 29 points, 20 in the second half. He scored 14 straight in one stretch of the closing half that gave Iowa the momentum it needed to end a maddening streak of win a week, lose a week.

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The senior scored a career-high 29 points Wednesday.

The Hawkeyes won a third straight game for the first time this Big Ten season. With one of the best strength of schedules in the league, but an RPI of 55 entering play Wednesday, Iowa needed this one to improve its NCAA stock. They did it by stuffing the good Hawkeyes/bad Hawkeyes rut in a snowbank.

"We talked about it a little bit," said Iowa point guard Mike Gesell, who energized the building with a drive down the lane and dunk with 4 1/2 minutes to play that gave Iowa a 12-point lead it took to the house. "We talked about how we got two big wins, then lost. Now we had two wins again. We wanted to get that third to get over the hump."

White's stellar career – he is now fourth on Iowa's career scoring list and fifth on the career rebounding list – is unquestioned. But Wednesday, his 134th career game was the most memorable and productive of his career.

"How about Aaron White's leadership," Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw marveled afterwards.

As McCaffery and White headed to do a Big Ten Network television interview afterwards, the coach stopped, shook White's hand and hugged him at center court. Iowa was White's only Big Ten offer out of Strongsville, Ohio. On Wednesday, he looked everything like a first-team all-Big Ten player.

Iowa improved to 9-6 in Big Ten play and 18-10 overall with three games remaining: at Penn State Saturday, at Indiana Tuesday and home against Northwestern March 7. The Hawkeyes are fifth in the Big Ten standings, a half-game ahead of Ohio State.

Mother Nature put a bite in Wednesday's crowd. I've been critical about the lack of a home-court advantage Iowa plays in front of at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But those who made it Wednesday deserve a salute. They were energized from the opening tip, and get an assist for this victory.

"I just want to begin by thanking our fans," McCaffery said.

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The Hawkeye coach was thankful for the atmosphere in a 68-60 win over Illinois.

When he looked out his office window around noon Wednesday, and saw the snow coming down, McCaffery wondered how many people would come. The crow was listed at 14,831. Less than 10,000 were on hand. And they made it feel like a standing-room only.

"I mean, you can't come up with a superlative to thank them enough for the atmosphere in this building and the impact it had on our ability to win a very competitive game," McCaffery said.

As far as the NCAAs go, this was a bubble game. The winner took a big step forward, the loser a step back. Illinois (17-11, 7-8) fell two games behind the Hawkeyes in the standings. And an NCAA Tournament got more elusive.

"NIT, NIT, NIT," Iowa's student section taunted the Illini in the final seconds.

Iowa entered this game with just a 4-3 record at home in Big Ten play. But Wednesday, with everything to play for, the Hawkeyes delivered the winning punch and took a step closer to making another positive step in the building of this program under coach Fran McCaffery.

Iowa won four league games in McCaffery's first season. Then an 8-10 mark in 2011-12, and two wins in the NIT. A 9-9 Big Ten record followed in 2012-13, and a trip to the NIT finals. Another 9-9 Big Ten record last season, and an NCAA berth for the first time since 2006. That NCAA berth was a play-in game.

This team is on the brink of another NCAA bid now. And don't look for a spot in the First Four in Dayton this time. White made sure of that.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.

ILLINOIS (60)

FG

3P

FT

RB

A

TO

TP

Eqwu

1-4

0-1

4-4

4

2

1

6

Black

1-2

0-0

0-0

2

1

0

2

Nunn

3-11

1-6

0-0

7

3

3

7

Starks

7-15

5-9

0-0

3

0

6

19

Hill

1-10

0-2

0-0

0

1

0

2

Morgan

0-0

0-0

0-0

0

0

1

0

Colbert

1-2

0-0

0-0

7

0

1

2

Rice

5-13

1-3

9-10

9

1

0

20

LaTulip

0-0

0-0

2-2

1

0

0

2

Totals

19-57

7-21

15-16

37

8

13

60

IOWA (68)

FG

3P

FT

RB

A

TO

TP

Woodbury

0-3

0-0

1-3

9

0

2

1

Uthoff

3-10

0-4

0-3

10

2

2

6

White

8-13

3-4

10-12

9

0

1

29

Jok

2-7

1-4

1-1

1

2

3

6

Gesell

1-5

0-0

2-4

1

1

1

4

Olaseni

4-7

0-0

0-1

1

1

1

8

Ukah

0-0

0-0

0-0

0

0

0

0

Uhl

0-0

0-0

2-2

1

1

0

2

Oglesby

2-2

2-2

0-0

2

3

1

6

Clemmons

1-1

0-0

4-4

0

4

1

6

Totals

21-48

6-14

20-30

36

14

12

68

Halftime—Iowa 33-32. Team fouls—Illinois 25, Iowa 14. Fouled out—Eqwu.

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