Aaron White's career night carries Hawkeyes past Illinois
IOWA CITY, Ia. – With his college career winding down, Aaron White is doing everything he can to make sure he ends it in the NCAA Tournament.
White reeled off 14 consecutive Iowa points during a second-half stretch and scored a career-high 29 overall to lead the Hawkeyes to a critical 68-60 win Wednesday over visiting Illinois.
"I had little feeling before the game that something special was going to happen tonight for me," White said. "That was it, I think, that little run. The whole night in general was special. Good win, and we played great."
Coupled with Indiana's loss to Northwestern – which, by the way, is on a four-game winning streak that began with an overtime win over the Hawkeyes Feb. 15 in Evanston – Iowa (18-10 overall) jumped to fifth place in the Big Ten Conference standings at 9-6 with three games to go.
Iowa could thank the orange-haired White more than anyone against the orange-clad Illini for securing its first three-game Big Ten winning streak of the season.
"I thought Aaron White was spectacular," Illinois coach John Groce said. "He played like a senior is supposed to play this time of year.
"He was hands-down the best player in the game. Wasn't even close."
With Iowa knowing it could drop into a seventh-place Big Ten tie with Illinois (now 17-11, 7-8) and down 36-35, White woke up a sluggish offense by himself. He swished a 3-pointer from the left wing with 17:11 left to send Iowa into a 38-36 lead.
White's personal 14-point run later included his career-best third 3-pointer, although at the end of it the lead was hardly comfortable at 49-46.
"What was great about him, I think, was his energy level," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "Normally in the second half, I'm trying to figure out how to get him out and rest him. He didn't want to come out.
"He was having fun."
White scored 20 points in the second half, sitting for only a brief 2-minute, 3-second stretch. It was reminiscent of the rousing Jan. 17 home win against Ohio State, when White scored 18 of his 22 points in the final 20 minutes – including a personal 12-point run in that one.
"It was just a time where (Wednesday's) game was kind of in the balance," White said, "and I kind of wanted to put my footprint on the game and was able to do it."
Illinois kept hanging around, but back-to-back dunks all but cemented that the majority of a spirited Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd listed at 14,831 left happy.
White slammed home a back-door alley-oop dunk on a lob from Anthony Clemmons (six points, 27 minutes), and point guard Mike Gesell rocked the place by throwing down a one-handed jam to push Iowa's lead to 62-50 with 4:37 to go.
"I was looking to be aggressive. My only bucket of the night," Gesell grinned. "I knew I had to get to the rim quick because the shot-blockers were coming. So I got up a little higher than I thought I would."
Iowa was veering toward NCAA bubble status after the Northwestern loss, but Wednesday's win – following up blowouts out Rutgers and Nebraska – takes some pressure off Saturday's trip to 13th-place Penn State.
"We have really competed in these last three games," McCaffery said. "We've got three more, and the plan is for that to continue."
If White can continue his torrid play, there's no reason Iowa can't run the table.
In addition to everything else Wednesday, the 6-foot-9 forward climbed the all-time charts. His alley-oop dunk from Josh Oglesby moved him past B.J. Armstrong into the No. 4 spot on Iowa's all-time scoring list. White now has 1,726 points, and No. 3 Greg Stokes (1,768) is next. With nine rebounds, he also moved past Bruce King into No. 5 all-time in rebounding (854).
White worked hard on his 3-point shot in the offseason, and he was working on it a good 2½ hours before tip-off in an empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
He seems to be finding his touch from deep. He is 5-of-6 from 3 since Sunday after going 4-of-19 in Iowa's first 13 games.
"We encourage him to shoot it," McCaffery said. "He works on it, and you're seeing some go in now and you can tell that he feels good letting it go.
"It changes everything for us, because now it spreads the defense even more."