Hawkeyes fall behind early, road woes continue against Illini
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Fran McCaffery tried almost every possible combination of players Wednesday searching for someone who could help his Iowa basketball team get a road victory.
Illinois got on top early and the Hawkeyes could never counter in a 76-64 loss before an announced crowd of 11,787 at State Farm Center. It dropped Iowa to 0-5 in road games. It also was the Hawkeyes' third consecutive loss since an upset win at home over Purdue on Jan. 12.
Nicholas Baer and Ahmad Wagner led Iowa with 12 points apiece off the bench. They both started the second half, along with usual reserves Christian Williams and Ryan Kriener.
"I just thought that group did some really good things in the first half," McCaffery said. "They gave us a chance with their activity level defensively and getting to the glass and running the floor. I thought that's what we needed."
But senior guard Peter Jok, who has been dealing with back spasms, managed only 10 points despite playing a team-high 32 minutes. In one difficult-to-comprehend stretch of the second half, the Big Ten Conference's leading scorer threw up an airball from the 3-point line and moments later simply lost his grip on the basketball while rising to attempt another 3. Jok, averaging 21.6 points per game entering play, was 1-for-5 from the arc.
"My back's still bothering me, but I felt like my team needed me out there so I wanted to play," Jok said. "As the game went on it just started tightening up."
Iowa (11-10, 3-5 Big Ten Conference) has had a recent habit of falling into early holes, and the pattern continued. Illinois scored the first 10 points of the game, while McCaffery used nine players trying to find a spark.
Backup point guard Williams finally put Iowa on the board 3 minutes, 50 seconds into the game, but things didn’t get much better.
Illinois (13-8, 3-5) built a 40-24 halftime lead by making 16 of 29 shots (55.2 percent), the fifth consecutive half in which the Hawkeyes allowed opponents to shoot at least 54 percent.
Iowa, meanwhile, managed only 10-for-27 shooting (37 percent). Baer was the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer in the first half with five points, as McCaffery used 12 players in all.
The Hawkeyes, with the backups coming to the forefront, were able to trade baskets with Illinois throughout the second half, but Iowa could only cut the deficit below 10 points once -- at 66-57 on a Wagner layup with 3:29 remaining.
"That's a little frustrating, but I think our offense overall was better the second half," Baer said. "I thought we moved the ball better.
"We got our shooters open shots and unfortunately they just didn't fall."
That meant long stretches on the bench for starters Tyler Cook (6 minutes in the second half), Cordell Pemsl (4) and Isaiah Moss (1). Point guard Jordan Bohannon played just 21 minutes total, but he had been battling the flu this week.
McCaffery said sitting his trio of freshmen wasn’t intended to send a message.
“I’m not a message-sender. That’s not my job description,” McCaffery said. “I love all three of those guys and we need them.
“I played those other guys and they were effective and I stayed with them. … The timeouts kept coming and I thought Wagner and (Dom) Uhl and Baer gave us the best chance to win in that 20 minutes. And that’s all it was.”
Illinois got 17 points off the bench from Michael Finke, including 3-of-5 shooting from the 3-point arc. The Illini snapped a three-game losing streak.
“The start’s huge, to send a message from the beginning,” Finke said. “We’ve been on the other side a fair share of times this year and it’s not good. It’s hard to come back when you dig a hole for yourself.”
Illinois held Jok to four points in the first half and forced 10 turnovers as Iowa could never find a rhythm. The Hawkeyes turned the ball over only three times in the second half.
“He’s really shifty and crafty with his body off the ball,” Illinois senior guard Malcolm Hill said of defending Jok. “I just tried to stay attached to him as best as possible. He has great screeners, too. I think they set pretty good screens. So I was just trying to find my way to move through the screens and then just try to guard him.”
The loss left McCaffery conceding it’s time for him to evaluate everything, starting with his own coaching. He stopped short of committing to a change in the starting lineup, however.
Iowa next hosts Ohio State on Saturday.