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Leistikow: Emotions pour out, as they should, in a true Iowa-Illinois rivalry game

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Things got heated after the final buzzer Sunday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

No big deal.

That’s how it’s supposed to be between Iowa and Illinois, two old rivals who haven’t had enough of these high-stakes, sold-out Big Ten Conference games over the past few decades.

The hard-nosed Hawkeyes got the better end of this one, turning a late four-point deficit into a 72-65 win against the first-place Illini.

“That is Big Ten basketball at its finest,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Two teams slugging it out, fighting it out.

“It’s great. Isn’t that what it’s about?”

Iowa's Connor McCaffery, who hit three 3-pointers including the go-ahead shot with 3:33 to go, celebrates a 72-65 win against Illinois.

Exactly.

And it’s been missing in this border battle for too long.

Except for a few years over the past several decades, it seems like when the Iowa program is up, Illinois' is down. Or vice versa.

For those of us that remember the 1980s, this was what Iowa-Illinois matchups were like back then. That was when everyone always played each other twice a year, so there was one matchup in Iowa City and one in Champaign.

High emotions. High meaning at the top of the conference standings.

And maybe even more emotions after the final buzzer, for good measure.

That’s what unfolded Sunday, with Joe Wieskamp’s exclamation-point dunk with 12 seconds to go seemingly ruffling some Illini feathers. That gave Iowa a 72-62 lead.

“My mindset was not to be a bush-league player,” Wieskamp said. “I just assumed they were going to foul, so I thought why not go take the easy bucket with 10 seconds left? I apologize if I offended any of their players or coaches.”

After that, Illinois came down and hit a 3-pointer, called timeout, then hacked away at CJ Fredrick and Connor McCaffery without a whistle as the final 4 seconds of clock ticked away. That made the coach’s son particularly upset, and he let the officials know about it.

“CJ was getting mauled. Watch the replay. Mauled,” McCaffery said. “Then (an Illini player) comes and takes a swing at me, hit no part of the ball, just hit all arm. OK, fine. We’ll go make free throws, if that’s what it comes down to. But call the foul. And then it’s all defused.”

People everywhere were talking on the court, from many different viewpoints. An Illini assistant coach can be seen on available social-media video shouting profanities in the direction of Fran McCaffery, who at that point left the handshake line and instructed his team to do the same.

“Why would you?” Fran McCaffery said of the late Illinois foul attempts that weren’t called. “Just, game’s over. But they played till the end. You can’t fault them for that. They played till the end. And then there’s pushing and shoving. A guy gets chopped. There’s no reason to chop there. And then you just go to the locker room. It’s unfortunate. But, nothing major happened.”

Detailing all of that is to articulate that if this game didn’t mean as much as it did Sunday … these emotions probably wouldn’t have bubbled up.

There was no mistaking that this was an emotionally charged game, especially with a very vocal segment of the 15,056 fans rooting for the road team. When Luka Garza rained in a clutch 3-pointer with 38 seconds left to give Iowa a 69-62 lead, he made sure everyone knew it.

Even laid-back Wieskamp let his emotions out after his finishing dunk.

As long as players aren't swinging fists or chairs at each other, this was great theatre.

There was nothing extremely out of line Sunday.

It was just a good old-fashioned Iowa-Illinois rivalry.

As Illinois player Andres Feliz said afterward, “That’s part of the game, just being a competitor. You want to win.”

And, as mentioned, this one meant something.

The 18th-ranked Hawkeyes once again showed their toughness, improving to 6-0 in home Big Ten games — all against KenPom.com top-40 opponents: Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, Wisconsin and now Illinois.

“In order to win in this league, you’ve got to be the tougher team,” said Garza, who had another fantastic performance with 25 points and 10 rebounds but maybe more impressively helped to limit 7-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn to six points. "That’s against anybody in this league, top to bottom. And this team was at the top.”

About the race for the top ...

At 7-4 in Big Ten play (16-6 overall), Iowa is now tied for fourth with Rutgers and just one game back of co-leaders Illinois and Michigan State (8-3 each). Maryland, which beat Iowa on Thursday, is 7-3.

Iowa has nine Big Ten games left. It hasn't won or shared a regular-season conference title in 41 years.

This is going to be fun.

More heated games and hot emotions are inevitably ahead.

Oh, and the very last game on the Big Ten’s entire regular-season schedule?

March 8 in Champaign, 6 p.m.

Iowa at Illinois.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.