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Illinois withstands rally by No. 18 Iowa to get important tournament seed

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two points determined one very important seed line Sunday at the State Farm Center.

Illinois held on for a hard-fought 78-76 win over Iowa that wasn't decided until Kofi Cockburn blocked a Luka Garza shot attempt in the final second.

It was the final regular-season game of the Big Ten Conference season, setting up the seeding for next week's league tournament. Illinois claimed a big leg-up in that event.

No. 18 Iowa (20-11, 11-9 Big Ten Conference) had beaten No. 22 Illinois (21-10, 13-7) in five consecutive meetings.

The teams entered this one knowing that the winner would get the 4 seed at next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis and a coveted double-bye into the quarterfinals. The loser would be the 5 seed, and would open play 24 hours earlier.

The Hawkeyes will face the winner of Wednesday's Minnesota-Northwestern game at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. If they win that, it will set up another showdown with the Illini. And it has become obvious this year that these teams detest each other.

With so much at stake, and some bad blood still simmering after Iowa’s 72-65 victory on Feb. 2 ended with some acrimony, it was no surprise that the first half Sunday featured physical play and a flareup that resulted in four technical fouls being assessed.

Cockburn, at 7-feet and 290 pounds, was a handful down low. The freshman had 10 first-half points and was constantly leaning on Iowa star Garza.

Garza, playing all 40 minutes, responded with 28 points of his own, frequently exhorting his teammates while the sellout crowd booed lustily, sweat dripping from his face.

With a minute left in the half, Iowa guard CJ Fredrick became entangled with the Illini’s Trent Frazier and was whistled for an offensive foul. After the whistle, Da’Monte Williams of Illinois slapped the ball out of the hands of Hawkeye guard Connor McCaffery. The two immediately exchanged sharp words, their faces inches apart until the officials belatedly came over to break up that fracas.

All four players received technical fouls, meaning Fredrick had three personal fouls in the first half.

Iowa led for 17 minutes and 55 seconds, showing superb skill on the offensive in building an advantage that reached 10 points. The Hawkeyes made 5 of 8 3-pointers in the half and all eight of their free throws.

But Illinois rode the momentum from its home crowd to tie the score twice, including a 41-41 deadlock at intermission.

And the Illini pulled away early in the second half as Iowa went cold from the field, had trouble securing rebounds and committed five costly turnovers. Illinois built a 66-50 lead and seemed to have put the Hawkeyes away.

Not so fast. 

Garza started to assert himself again. McCaffery hit a pair of 3-pointers. Bakari Evelyn added another.

Suddenly, Iowa was within two points. But couldn't quite finish off the rally.

The Hawkeyes had a pair of close-range shots fall off the rim, and then got one more chance with 1.6 seconds remaining. McCaffery inbounded the ball to Garza in the lane, but he was well-defended and off-balance. His shot was blocked. Illinois prevailed to get that 4 seed.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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