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Leistikow: Hawkeyes keep season alive, end Big Ten Tournament streak of futility

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

NEW YORK — For the first time in 1,812 days, the Iowa men’s basketball team can celebrate a win in the Big Ten Conference Tournament.

No, this game film isn't headed to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But for the 12th-seeded Hawkeyes, their 96-87 win Wednesday against 13th-seeded Illinois at Madison Square Garden carried some significance.

Gone is a nearly five-year span between wins in this event.

The stain of four straight losses to double-digit seeds in the Big Ten Tournament was somewhat wiped away; at least that narrative is.

"It's nice to get a chance to stay overnight here," Iowa's Nicholas Baer dead-panned, though it is the first extended stay for the fourth-year junior.

For their efforts, the Hawkeyes have pushed their season into March. They will face fifth-seeded Michigan here at around 1:30 p.m. CT Thursday, with that game's winner meeting No. 4 seed Nebraska on Friday.

Tyler Cook soars past Illinois' Michael Finke (43) for a first-half dunk in Wednesday's Big Ten Tournament opener.

This disappointing Iowa season isn't dead yet.

“I was telling the guys, this is a brand new season," point guard Jordan Bohannon said. "We’re 0-0 every single game on out. There’s really not expectations, no pressure on us. There’s no reason we can’t make a magical run.”

You could pick any number of plays to credit for this Hawkeye win.

But I’m going with the one Ahmad Wagner delivered midway through the second half.

After Illinois had sliced Iowa’s 13-point lead to two, at 63-61, Tyler Cook had driven to the rim for a layup and drew a foul. He missed the free throw, but Wagner squirted through two Illini defenders to clutch the offensive rebound. The little-used forward popped a pass to a wide-open Bohannon behind the 3-point line and … when Bohannon is open, you know what usually happens.

Swish.

"Big-time play," Cook said. "That's what I told him. That's what we needed."

"A five-point possession," Baer added.

Suddenly, Iowa’s precarious two-point lead was 68-61 with 9 minutes, 55 seconds to play.

Not long after Wagner's play, it was 73-63. The Hawkeyes were in charge.

"I got the rebound, and I thought about taking a shot," said Wagner, who made the most of his seven minutes with three points, three rebounds and two assists. "But then I remembered Jordan doesn't miss. So, threw it to him. Right decision."

The Hawkeyes certainly made it interesting. Illinois got it back to 88-83 with 1:24 to play, and Te'Jon Lucas had a 3-point try that would've cut the deficit to three in the final minute.

But Iowa hung on. 

Bohannon, Cook and Luka Garza were fantastic. That trio combined for 64 of Iowa’s 96 points. They shot a collective 20-for-28 from the floor, 18-for-21 from the foul line.

Feb 28, 2018; New York, NY, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes forward Tyler Cook (5) commits a foul as he shoots against Illinois Fighting Illini forward Kipper Nichols (2) during the first half of a first round game of the 2018 Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomore, sophomore, freshman.

Bohannon led the way, with 25 points and six assists. And oh by the way, the point guard was 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.

The Hawkeyes improved to 14-18 for the season. They thought they’d be at least 18-14, if not much better, by now. The only way to get where they want to go, the NCAA Tournament, is to win four more games in four days here. That remains a remote possibility.

But for one night, don’t blame these guys for feeling good about their first two-game winning streak of 2018. The program hadn't won at the Big Ten Tournament since sixth-seeded Iowa beat 11th seed Northwestern on March 14, 2013.

Iowa got to the finish line in part by surviving an ugly first half that certainly looked and felt like a game pitting two of the worst teams in the Big Ten.

Iowa committed five turnovers on its first nine possessions.

Illinois (14-18) went without points on 10 of its first 12.

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Nicholas Baer (51) and Illinois Fighting Illini guard Mark Smith (13) battle for the ball during first half of a first game of the 2018 Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Sports

Combined, the teams committed 21 fouls and 18 turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes, which in real time took a full hour.

It was befitting for extremely light fan turnout in the opening game of this week-earlier-than-usual Big Ten Tournament.

But the Hawkeyes emerged with a 35-31 halftime lead on 12 of 20 shooting.

Iowa got the job done despite foul trouble to its core three guards with … defense?

Believe it or not, the Hawkeyes played some — especially in the first 8 minutes as they accrued a 17-5 lead, the final two points coming on a thunderous Cook dunk that had that Madison Square Garden backboard shaking for a good 10 to 15 seconds.

“They played with energy, and they played together," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who improved to 3-7 in the Big Ten Tournament. "They shared the ball. They were connected, and I think that’s important."

Iowa had one more big dunk to end it; Bohannon finding Garza on a breakaway for a two-handed stuff for an eight-point lead with 34 seconds to play.

And, along with the basketball, Garza had flushed nearly five years of Big Ten futility.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.