First-place Hawkeyes show veteran poise, pound Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Playing its first game as the sole leader of the Big Ten Conference, Iowa’s veteran basketball team made an emphatic statement: This group will not let up.
The seventh-ranked Hawkeyes delivered one of their most impressive performances of the season on Sunday, never letting Illinois seriously challenge them in a 77-65 win at the State Farm Center. It's Iowa's ninth win by double digits in 11 Big Ten games.
“We’re playing well," said Iowa senior Jarrod Uthoff, who scored 18 points and tied a career high with 12 rebounds. "We’re playing as a team. We’re playing confident.”
Iowa (19-4 overall, 10-1 Big Ten) could have been caught looking ahead to Thursday’s huge game at Indiana, which dropped out of a first-place tie with the Hawkeyes by losing at Penn State on Saturday night. Instead, the Hawkeyes put the pedal to the metal against the Illini.
The Hawkeyes led by 20 points less than nine minutes into the second half. That’s how you do it on the road, and the result was the program's first back-to-back wins in Champaign since 1986 and 1987.
“When you’re winning games, it’s easy to get complacent," senior point guard Mike Gesell said. "But we haven’t really done that at all.”
Every Hawkeye starter played at least 30 minutes. Each had a big hand in this one.
Uthoff outdueled Illinois' Malcolm Hill in a battle of some of the Big Ten’s top scorers; Uthoff guarded Hill, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound scorer, and held him to nine shot attempts and 14 points.
Senior Adam Woodbury was a picture of efficient basketball, logging his sixth double-double of the season — 10 points and 14 rebounds, not to mention a team-high four assists.
Senior Anthony Clemmons put on a showcase defensive performance, suffocating Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn for most of the game and assembling a line of 10 points, six rebounds and four steals.
Gesell (eight points) snapped out of his shooting slump, registering key jumpers as the shot clock wound down.
And there was junior Peter Jok, who seemed to connect on a big shot whenever Iowa needed it. He finished with a game-high 23 points, five rebounds, two steals and one especially clutch play.
Jok dove on the floor during the second half to collect his own missed shot, and from the ground whipped a pass to Uthoff outside the 3-point line. Swish, and Iowa's lead was 56-38.
“That play, in particular, I think really crushed them," Uthoff said.
That play is what happens behind a bunch of team-first seniors. A member of the Illinois media asked Iowa coach Fran McCaffery how this team, now a half-game ahead of Maryland (10-2) and a full game ahead of Indiana (9-2), was different from the 2014 Hawkeyes that faded badly down the stretch after reaching No. 10 in the national polls. All five current starters were on that team.
McCaffery and his players have answered this before with Iowa media, but it bears repeating as the Hawkeyes continue to tick off wins — now 12 in their last 13 games.
“They’ve won on the road. They’ve lost on the road. They’ve come back. They’ve lost leads," McCaffery said. "There’s nothing they haven’t seen. … There’s no panic.”
No panic. No letdown, either. That's why these are the first-place Hawkeyes.
“(First place) means more to you guys right now than it does to us. You guys are able to write about it. It’s just another game for us," Woodbury said. "I know you guys are tired of hearing that. We’re trying to keep that mentality through the whole season.”