Iowa falls behind early, goes cold late in loss to Illinois in Big Ten semifinal

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Iowa spent the second half of Saturday's Big Ten tournament semifinal trying to get within striking range of Illinois.

When the Hawkeyes finally did, they went cold. Iowa missed eight of its final nine shots and fell to the Illini 82-71 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Hawkeyes (21-8) were undone by poor interior defense, untimely turnovers and imbalanced scoring.

Illinois (22-6), the second seed, advances to face fifth-seeded Ohio State in Sunday's 2:30 p.m. title game. Iowa will wait until 5 p.m. to learn its NCAA Tournament seed, likely a 2 for the first time since 1987.

"They came up big on the defensive end when they needed to," Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon said. "We just dug ourselves a little hole. We fought like hell (Saturday) to try to get it back. But they played very well down the stretch."

Iowa had won eight of its previous nine games, but ran into an Illinois team that is playing better than anyone in the Big Ten, and maybe the nation, right now. The Illini will be a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that begins in Indiana next week. 

More:Iowa veterans make key plays late to bounce Wisconsin in Big Ten tournament

Illinois beat Iowa in their only two meetings this season. They led for the final 37 minutes Saturday.

The Hawkeyes got 21 points and 12 rebounds from all-American center Luka Garza. Bohannon added 20. But it wasn't enough for a team making its first Big Ten semifinal appearance since 2006.

More:Iowa 62, Wisconsin 57: Here's what we learned

Illinois never let Iowa get closer than 74-69 in the second half. That came after a Bohannon 3-pointer that was promptly followed by one of his two turnovers, an Andre Curbelo steal and pass to Ayo Dosunmu for a dunk.

"I think this will only help us moving forward," Bohannon said. "I don't think we played very good (Saturday), and we were still right there with them."

Here’s what we learned:

Mar 13, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Jordan Bohannon (3) battles for the loose ball against Illinois Fighting Illini guard Andre Curbelo (5) in the first half at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Turnovers plague Iowa again

The Hawkeyes had a clean second half in that department against Wisconsin, after eight first-half miscues. But Saturday, turnovers were an issue again.

The Hawkeyes had eight more in the first half, and finished with 12. Illinois is a good enough team to make you pay for sloppy play. The Illini generated 19 points off of the turnovers they forced.

"They're going to be a team that pressures a lot, and I thought maybe that got to us a little bit too much in the first half," Iowa junior Connor McCaffery said. "Those points off turnovers were huge."

Illinois also was aggressive about getting out on the run, hurting the Hawkeyes with 19 fast-break points. That was too many easy baskets allowed by Iowa, which seemed to have to work harder to generate its offense. Iowa averages only nine turnovers per game, and needs to get back to that standard when NCAA Tournament play begins.

Kofi Cockburn proves difficult to move

The Illini center is 7 feet tall and 285 pounds. On Saturday, he planted himself down and dared Iowa to find someone willing and able to move him away from the basket. The Hawkeyes had little success.

Cockburn scored 18 first-half points, including three dunks. He did all of this in just 13 minutes of court time, as Illinois coach Brad Underwood found ways to get him rest. 

In the final minute, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery did something he had never previously tried — inserting freshman Josh Ogundele into a game before intermission. Ogundele is 6-10, 285 and had one job. On the first Illinois possession, he moved Cockburn out eight feet away from the hoop and forced a missed shot. The next time downcourt, Ogundele was called for a foul. But that’s not a bad strategy against Cockburn, a poor free-throw shooter. He was 4 of 7 at the line in the first half.

Cockburn finished with 26 points, including two big baskets in the final minutes. He and Garza both were called for four fouls while trying to contend with one another.

"We're both being physical with each other. So we're both wearing on each other," Garza said. "But it's just what I'm going to have to deal with. ... It's just motivation for me personally to be better."

Hawkeyes rely on big three again

In Friday’s quarterfinal victory over Wisconsin, Garza, Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp combined for 45 of Iowa’s 62 points. But there are other capable scorers on the team, and the Hawkeyes must find more ways to get them involved as postseason play moves along.

In Saturday’s first half, Bohannon (12), Wieskamp (11) and Garza (8) had all but six of the Hawkeyes’ 37 points. Shooting guard CJ Fredrick had only two. Patrick McCaffery came off the bench for four. Keegan Murray, another freshman who has had a terrific season, rushed his lone shot attempt and played seven scoreless minutes.

Fredrick and Murray, in particular, are players who need to supplement the scoring of the three stars. They each had four points Saturday.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he sat Fredrick late because the sophomore has been battling plantar fasciitis in his right foot and had never before had to play back-to-back days.

"He just didn't look right to me," McCaffery said. "Let's get a little bit of treatment and be ready to go at the end of next week."

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.