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Bluder recaps win over Illinois, looks ahead to Big Ten Tourney. Ryan Murken/Iowa City Press-Citizen

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It was a happy Hawkeye senior day Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

And a trio of Iowa underclassmen made sure of that.

Freshman Megan Gustafson posted a team-high 16 points, sophomore Whitney Jennings had 14 and Chase Coley added 10 as Iowa held on for a 61-56 win over Illinois in its regular-season finale.

“Those three seniors have mean so much to each of us,” Jennings said of seniors Kali Peschel, Nicole Smith and Claire Till. “Obviously they haven’t had the court contributions that some senior classes have had but the impact that they’ve made in the locker room on each of us is so important I can’t put into words.”

Gustafson posted her seventh double-double in the last 10 games by adding 10 rebounds and hitting a turnaround jumper that gave Iowa a 59-56 lead with 45 seconds left.

Jennings recorded a season-high four 3-pointers Saturday on her way to 14 points. Coley made two game-clinching free throws with 16.8 seconds left as Iowa (18-12, 8-10 Big Ten Conference) secured no worse than the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Iowa begins the conference tournament at noon Thursday at as either the eight or nine seed and likely needs a deep tournament run to run reach the NCAA Tournament for the ninth straight season.

“It is a new season, anything can happen,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said of the Big Ten tournament. “We want to go into that Big Ten tournament and do as well as we can to set ourselves up for a possible bid.”

Iowa led 33-23 at halftime and 55-37 after three quarters but couldn’t put away last-place Illinois (9-20 2-16) until Coley made a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left.

Iowa shot 42 percent from the floor and had 20 assists on 24 field goals.

“It’s extremely important obviously to come out here and get this win against Illinois but we really wanted to get the win for our seniors,” said Ally Disterhoft, who scored 14 points. “They have contributed so much to this program on the floor and even more so behind the scenes with what they do for our team day in and day out, so to honor them in that way was really nice."

Iowa saw a 10-point halftime lead nearly disappear midway through the third quarter. Illinois used an 8-0 run fueled by five straight points by sophomore Chatrice White to cut the lead to 39-37.

Iowa responded with a 16-0 run in the final 5:06 to close the quarter.

Jennings started the run with back-to-back 3-pointers. Iowa had four 3-pointers from three different players during the spurt that gave the Hawkeyes a 55-37 lead after three.

“We got a nice 18-point lead going into the fourth quarter and we were feeling good about it and then we don’t score for five minutes,” Bluder said. “That has kind of been the story for us, we are a game of momentum a game of swings.”

White wouldn’t let Illinois go quietly.

The 6-foot-3 sophomore had 11 points in the fourth quarter and 22 of her game-high 29 points in the second half.

White had four points during a 9-0 Illinois run that closed Iowa's lead to 57-56 with 1:06 left.

Iowa never let the Illini pull ahead.

Gustafson scored on a turnaround jumper in the lane to give the Hawkeyes some breathing room at 59-56.

“I just got the ball and I kind of felt that she was on a different side and I turned middle and felt the confidence,” Gustafson said. “I was very confident in my teammates to get me the ball for that shot.”

Tania Davis rebounded a Kennedy Cattenhead miss on the ensuing Illinois possession and Coley hit two free throws to cap the scoring with 16 seconds remaining.

Council Bluffs native Kyley Simmons was the only other Illinois player in double figures, finishing with 11.

Reach Ryan Murken at 319-339-7369 or rmurken@press-citizen.com and follow him on Twitter at @rmmurken

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